Democrats in Congress Fight to Allow Gay Men to Donate Blood

Lawmakers are putting pressure on the Obama administration to change a "discriminatory" policy.

Members of Congress are urging Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to end a policy instituted in 1983 that bans "men who have sex with men" from donating blood.

"If we are serious about protecting and enhancing our nation's blood supply, we must embrace science and reject outdated stereotypes," states a letter signed by 18 Democratic senators and more than 60 House members.

The letter heightens pressure on the Obama administration to end what many see as a discriminatory practice. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Tom Harkin, and Tammy Baldwin are leading the effort in the Senate and have pushed HHS before to evaluate its blood-donation policies. While the HHS Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability recommended in November that a lifetime ban was unnecessary, it still seeks to stop men from donating blood if they have engaged in a sexual encounter with another man in the last year.

Lawmakers argue those new guidelines are not enough.

"The recommendation to move to a one-year deferral policy is a step forward relative to current policies, however, such a policy still prevents many low-risk individuals from donating blood," the letter says.

Instead, lawmakers want HHS to institute a process to screen for other risk factors.

The American Medical Association, the American Red Cross, and America's Blood Centers all maintain that simply banning gay men from donating blood isn't based on science, and that it is rooted in prejudice. Lawmakers in the letter argue that it makes more sense to screen for other risk factors that make people prone to HIV infection. Those factors may be things like engaging in unprotected sex or needle sharing. Many advocates have argued that even a one-year ban still doesn't change the practice from targeting gay men. For example, under that policy a gay man who is married or in a monogamous relationship might be at a lower risk for sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, but he still would not be able to donate blood.

"A one-year deferral policy, like a lifetime ban, is a categorical exclusion based solely on the sex of an individual's sexual partner—not his actual risk of carrying a transfusion-transmittable infection," the letter reads.

If HHS changed its policies, the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA's law school, estimated it could have a radical impact on the number of people who would be eligible to donate blood. The institute says that if the lifetime ban were completely lifted, 2.6 million men would be eligible to donate and about 130,150 men likely would do so, coming to 219,000 pints of blood a year. Getting rid of the lifetime ban and instituting a one-year ban would yield about 89,700 additional pints of blood a year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1.2 million Americans have HIV and roughly one in seven who are infected are unaware they have the virus. The agency says that gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with other men are most affected by the disease. In 2010, while they were only 4 percent of the overall population, the group represented 63 percent of all the new cases of HIV.

Still, many advocates have argued that blood tests administered on blood donations are adequate enough to screen for HIV.