Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05), who penned the following piece, serves as Vice-Chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus.
This past Tuesday, in Washington D.C., a 21 year old man named Jay Franzone donated blood. On the surface, this act seems common, almost routine, especially as we observe National Blood Donor Month. Americans donate blood every day—on high school and college campuses during blood drives, in workplaces after a coworker falls ill, and in hospitals as loved ones prepare for surgery. What makes this scenario unique is the fact that Jay is gay, or as a blood bank would classify him, MSM—a man who has sex with men. And because of this, he is required to abstain from sex for 12 months in order to qualify as a healthy blood donor.
To his credit, Jay did just that—refrained from sexual contact of any kind for an entire year—in order to donate blood, partially as an act of protest but also in an attempt to raise awareness on a discriminatory policy that many Americans do not know exists.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating blood donor safety and produces best practices guidelines that are used at all credible blood banks. The FDA first began prohibiting gay and bisexual men from donating blood in the early 1980’s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when the risk from blood transfusion was just beginning to be understood. In the decades to follow, the “lifetime ban” was left largely unchanged. Finally, in 2015, the FDA rolled back the lifetime ban on MSM to the current 12-month deferral policy.
Despite the perceived progress this policy change made, time-based deferrals are arbitrary and unsupported by science. Since the 1980’s, we have dramatically improved our medical and scientific understanding of HIV/AIDS and are regularly improving our screening and detection capabilities. Technology has aided in serious advancements so that HIV detection tests now have near perfect results. And those tests can detect HIV in the blood an average of nine to 11 days post-infection.
Last year’s attack at Pulse Nightclub highlighted the cruel irony of the blood ban when members of the LGBT community—the very community targeted by hate and terror that night—were unable to donate blood to the victims in Orlando. The LGBT community was understandably eager to stand up and help the response effort. During times of national tragedy—mass shootings, natural disasters or an accident – giving blood is a common and necessary expression of service and support. It’s a simple way for ordinary Americans to show solidarity, patriotism and most importantly, provide life saving resources to those in need.
I first became passionate about this issue when I came to Congress in 2009, and in 2010 I led a letter with then Senator John Kerry, asking the Commissioner of the FDA to reconsider their lifetime ban. Since then, my office has been relentless in working with and calling on FDA and Department of Health & Human Services leaders to update the blood donor questionnaire, conduct the necessary scientific studies, and ultimately move to a risk-based assessment policy. After the shooting in Orlando, I was proud to have 115 of my House colleagues—including 6 Republicans—join me in sending a letter to Commissioner Robert M. Califf calling on the FDA to change, once and for all, its outdated deferral policy.
As a heterosexual man, I can only imagine how frustrating it is given the arbitrary nature of both the 12-month timeframe as well as the fact that other groups with similar risk factors are not barred from donating blood, either explicitly by policy or in practice
It’s long past due that the FDA implements an individual risk-based screening process that is tied directly to risky behavior and not sexual orientation alone. Risk based assessment has been successfully implemented in Spain and Italy, with other countries likely to soon follow suit.
There is no doubt that blood must be screened in order to keep Americans safe and healthy and I am committed to working with the FDA to ensure a safe, secure blood supply, across the board. However, public policy must always be rooted in the facts, not fear. We have near perfect technology that could render time-based deferral periods obsolete and we should use that technology for good. Not only can we craft a more inclusive policy, but we can increase blood safety for everyone. It’s a win-win.
Jay’s story reminds us that change comes as a result of small steps, taken by passionate individual citizens. Congress has a lot to learn from Americans like Jay and we all have a responsibility to break down barriers and reduce the stigmas that divide us.
After all, blood is blood, gay or straight.