Whether for Life or for One Year, Banning Gay Blood Donation Is Bad Science

Just before Christmas, the FDA accepted the recommendation of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services panel and announced that it would modify its ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. Instead of barring such men from donation for life, as the policy had done up to that point, the FDA will now accept blood from gay and bisexual men who have been celibate for at least one year.

While this shift represents nominally better policy, it preserves the ban’s core problem: the fact that the FDA is targeting a high-risk group (men who have sex with men) instead of high-risk behavior (unprotected sex, especially unprotected receptive anal sex, with multiple partners — regardless of the gender of those involved). Not only is the ban unjust, but statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also indicate that the policy is scientifically baseless.

The FDA’s blood-donation guidelines apply to questionnaires used by the Red Cross and other blood-collection agencies. Prospective donors respond to survey questions that ask about their travel history, drug usage, and other risk factors associated with disease transmission. People with certain responses are asked to disqualify themselves from donation.

Because it highlights activities that increase the risk of disease, this practice should function as an important educational tool. But by suggesting that gay and bisexual men are at risk and straight people aren’t, the FDA’s guidelines misinform the public. To the extent that it contributes to ignorance of the risks associated with certain types of heterosexual sex, the FDA’s policy, even in its revised form, actually presents a public-health concern.

The FDA’s insistence on outdated, unscientific guidelines for blood-donor deferral also undermines its credibility more generally. Diminished credibility could have significant ramifications; for example, it may be harder to debunk the myth that vaccinations cause autism without high levels of public confidence in the FDA. Most of the FDA’s recommendations about food and drug safety are surely legitimate, but critics of these recommendations can now point to a clear instance — blood-donor-eligibility criteria — in which the organization has disregarded the facts.

Some people might contend that the one-year ban is an improvement, albeit a very small one, over the lifetime ban. As minimal progress can be considered better than no progress at all, this argument isn’t necessarily wrong. But organizations also sometimes adopt nominally better policy to pacify opposition and avert or postpone more sweeping changes.

Regardless of the FDA’s motives in this case, their policy remains backwards. In addition to inappropriately stigmatizing gay and bisexual men, the blood ban spreads misinformation about public health and harms the FDA’s credibility. It is therefore imperative that activists apply pressure until the FDA embraces science and adopts the focus on actual high-risk behavior that has worked in Italy for the past 13 years.