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Supporters of the outdated ban argue that excluding groups at such “high-risk” for HIV will help protect the blood supply from infection.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.

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