Should Gays Be Allowed to Donate Blood?

generic, blood needle over gay rainbow flag
Should gay men be allowed to donate blood?

That's the question being asked today by a government health committee that is reviewing the longstanding ban on blood donation by men who say they've had sex with other men.

The ban has been in place since the 1980s, when health officials were beginning to battle the AIDS epidemic.

But now, advocates, academics and members of Congress are wondering if that thinking is out of date.

"Lifting restrictions on blood donation by men who have had sex with men would help to alleviate frequent blood shortages in the US," says Gary Gates, a scholar with the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

The institute's research suggests that ending the ban could add 219,000 pints a year of blood to the nation's supply, a 1.4 percent increase.

FDA rules currently ban blood donation by any man who has had sex with another man since 1977.

Surprisingly, men who acknowledge having sex with an HIV-positive woman or with a prostitute are banned from donating blood for only one year.

And that thinking has gay rights advocates crying foul.

"Amongst the gay male community, often people are caught off guard that this policy is still in effect since there have been such advances in detection technology," says Nathan Schaefer, policy director for Gay Men's Health Crisis, who is speaking at the hearings.

Screening technology can now detect HIV in blood within weeks of infection. When the ban began, it took months.

"The policy reinforces negative stereotypes about gay men, assuming they are all an equal threat to the public health," Schaefer says, "and reinforces false perceptions about heterosexuals to say they don't represent a risk."

Since 1985, FDA officials have had a different view. They point out that the prevalence of HIV infection among men who have had sex with other men is 60 times that of the general population.

And they say, right or wrong, the current ban has worked. The risk of getting HIV from a pint of blood is now only one per 2 million units transfused, the officials told MSNBC.

The Department of Health and Human Services will hold hearings this week to sort things out. Senators including John Kerry (D-Mass.) want to end the ban. The American Red Cross suggests modifying it so that men are banned for only one year after having sex with another man.

The FDA will make the final call.