Hooks and Kelley: Stand up to the blood ban

The country is currently facing one of the worst blood shortages in 10 years. The Red Cross has put out an alert, and local chapters, Yale included, are stepping up their efforts to get folks out to donate. “There will be blood” posters are on every bulletin board, in every college and in the snow. Dean Mary Miller sent us all an e-mail Tuesday encouraging us to give blood before the concerted and convenient effort here at Yale is over. We’ve been asked entering and leaving the dining hall the past couple of days to sign up for an appointment, because, as we all now know, 30 minutes could save three lives. With the campus so saturated in awareness and altruism, what is preventing some of us from heading over to the Af-Am House to donate? The sad truth is that we didn’t make that choice; gay and bisexual men are banned from donating for life.

In 1985, during the midst of the AIDS crisis and a full year before Reagan ever said “AIDS” publicly, the Food and Drug Administration crafted a rule that excluded men that have sex with men (MSM) from donating to the country’s blood supply. Perhaps at the time it was a fair response. Only a few years prior, 44 gay men had been diagnosed with a strange “cancer,” and within a short time, AIDS had ravished the queer communities of large and small cities alike. But that was 1985. This is 2011. Most of us grew up thinking about AIDS not as a “gay disease” but one that affects millions world wide. This progress in our public health education was possible because scientists figured out that AIDS doesn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation. Gay and bisexual men were marked as a “high-risk” group, and we still are, even after 26 years.

Gay and bisexual men know the importance of giving blood. We want to save three lives in 30 minutes just like every other altruistic donor. And we want to stick it to Harvard as much as the next guy. But despite our Bulldog spirit and our desire to help, we remain forever the outsiders, even if our blood caries no disease. The FDA regulation is, in the best of opinions, a vestige of fear and, yes, discrimination. So long as donating blood remains a civic duty and a point of school pride, we’re outside that commendable community. But more than this, we’re excluded from doing something good for this world, even when it’s safe, responsible and possible.

Supporters of the outdated ban argue that excluding groups at such “high-risk” for HIV will help protect the blood supply from infection. But the redundant screening system for all donated blood, which involves three different tests, makes such a blanket ban both unethical and counter-productive. Modern tests are designed to be able to reliably detect HIV in blood within weeks of infection, and thus the window during which HIV-positive blood might pass though screening is very small.

Further, the “high risk” status of gay and bisexual men is no longer accurate, as awareness of the disease has increased dramatically in the past 25 years and screening processes have become more sophisticated. Because of improved screening and awareness, even the Red Cross does not support the ban any longer. By enforcing such a ban, the FDA is only hurting the people that desperately need blood donations.

What can we do for the time being? Apart from making the FDA aware of how discriminatory and unnecessary this rule is, men who are barred from donating can volunteer as “blood buddies.” By accompanying a friend who can donate blood, people who are not allowed to donate can demonstrate their willingness to put in the time and effort even if they restricted from actually helping the cause.

This outdated and discriminatory FDA ban must be lifted. But until then, show your support by giving blood if you can, and bringing along a friend who can’t.

Cody Hooks and Claire Kelley are sophomores in Trumbull and Timothy Dwight colleges, respectively.


  • RexMottram08

    Anal sex is high risk sexual activity.

    Keep it away from the blood supply!

  • River Tam

    According to the CDC, one in four males who have engaged in sex with males are HIV positive, accounting for 71% of male HIV cases in the US today (48% of all cases, along with 53% of total new diagnoses in the US.) The overall HIV rate for American men: 0.38%, overall HIV rate for American women: 0.13%. http://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/FastFacts-MSM-FINAL508COMP.pdf – that means that a MSM individual is quite literally 60x more likely to have HIV/AIDS than a non-MSM individual. These are statistics, not value judgments.

    The FDA continues: MSM have a HIV/AIDS rate “800 times higher than first time blood donors and 8000 times higher than repeat blood donors (American Red Cross).” Again, statistics, not value judgments.

    Even more from the FDA: “Even taking into account that 75% of HIV infected men who have sex with men already know they are HIV positive and would be unlikely to donate blood, **the HIV prevalence in potential donors with history of male sex with males is 200 times higher than first time blood donors and 2000 times higher than repeat blood donors.**”


    Hooks and Kelley lament: “gay and bisexual men were marked as a “high-risk” group, and we still are, even after 26 years”. Well, MSM have an infection rate 1000x that of the general population. It is the most effective criterion for screening for HIV in America, bar none. Gay and bisexual men ARE a high-risk group. Again – these are statistics, not value judgments. The CDC reports that MSM is the only risk group that continues to see an annual INCREASE in infections. Again, statistics not judgments.

    Hook and Kelley argue that “the “high risk” status of gay and bisexual men is no longer accurate, as awareness of the disease has increased dramatically in the past 25 years and screening processes have become more sophisticated.” Statistics disagree. The highest-risk population for HIV/AIDS in America continues to be MSM individuals. This is why blood donation by MSM is banned. HIV/AIDS screening has gotten better, it’s still not perfect.

    Of *course* a ban on MSM blood donation discriminates between MSM and non-MSM’s. But until Hooks and Kelley put forth some sort of empirical argument that the policies of the global health professionals in countries around the world (including **UK, Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, France, Portugal, and Germany**) are “a vestige of fear and discrimination” induced by the Ghost of Ronald Reagan, I can’t take their claims that seriously.


  • River Tam

    Now, a bit of judgment:

    It’s appalling that Hook and Kelley use their space to quite literally bury their readers’ head in the stand. MSM continues to be the #1 risk factor for HIV/AIDS. This doesn’t have to be the case. However, the solution relies on education, education, and more education. It’s not hard to wrap it up – the challenge is to make sure people do this.

    By repeating a falsehood – that MSM is NOT an HIV/AIDS risk factor – the authors do their readers a disservice and – in the long run – do damage to their cause.

  • Martinez12

    Screening processes have improved markedly since the ban was instituted. Not even the Red Cross supports a lifetime ban anymore. River, it’s not a question of lifetime ban v. no ban. I think many of us would agree that the proposal the Red Cross has put forward (that no blood be donated within a year of male-to-male sexual contact) makes sense. But with better screening processes that can detect HIV within under a month of infection, clinging to a lifetime ban *is* discriminatory, unnecessary, and unrealistic.

  • RexMottram08

    Lifetime ban for more than 5 years of MSM activity.