Gay blood donor ban based on fear, not science

Story highlights

  • Mike Quigley: One-month anniversary of Orlando is apt time to look at FDA restrictions on gay men donating blood
  • He says banning men who have sex with another man in past year ignores technology that has improved screening
  • Quigley: He and 115 colleagues in Congress pressing FDA to update rules

Mike Quigley is a U.S. congressman representing Illinois' 5th District. He is a vice-chairman of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus and ranking Democrat of the Emerging Threats Subcommittee of the House Intelligence Committee. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A month ago, Americans woke up to the horrible news that as we slept, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — the most violent terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 -- had just occurred in Orlando. As the terrible details began to circulate on June 12, we could scarcely comprehend that 49 innocent men and women, who had gone out for a night of dancing and fun with their friends, had been murdered in cold blood.

That day, concerned citizens in Orlando and across the nation mobilized to help the 53 men and women who had been rushed to the hospital from Pulse nightclub. It was clear that blood donations in the area were in high demand. Since the attack took place during LGBT Pride Month and the target was a popular gay club, the LGBT community was eager to help.
    Unfortunately, many healthy gay and bisexual men were unable to help the response effort by donating blood because of the Food and Drug Administration's discriminatory blood donor deferral policy. Instead, some would-be donors were turned away.
    Up until December 2015, the FDA had held that a man who had sex with another man, even just once in his life, was banned forever from donating blood. This policy was established in the 1980s, at the peak of the AIDS crisis when scientific data was scarce and paranoia was high.
    But by 2009, when I was first elected to Congress, much had changed in our understanding of HIV/AIDS and its transmission. Major scientific advancements in blood screening practices allow us to detect HIV just nine to 11 days after infection through use of the nucleic acid test, or NAT. Unfortunately, the FDA's blood donation policy did not reflect these scientific advancements.
    I've been proud to fight to reverse this prejudiced policy -- first shoulder to shoulder with then-Sen. John Kerry, and now with U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren. It took a lot of hard work over the course of six years before the FDA changed the blood donation policy for gay and bisexual men from a lifetime ban to a 12-month deferral. But as the tragedy in Orlando highlighted, the 12-month deferral policy is still discriminatory and does not reflect actual risk factors.
    In comments sent to the FDA a year ago about the deferral policy, the American Public Health Association noted that this ban is "not based in science but appears to be modeled after other countries' choices and fears" and that "no specific scientific rationale is provided to justify the 12-month exclusion."
    That is why immediately after the tragedy in Orlando, I joined 115 of my colleagues in the House of Representatives in sending a bipartisan letter to FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, urging him to finally put an end to this outdated blood donation policy and update it to reflect science, not fear. We will not stop fighting for this until we see it enacted across the country.
    Our current blood donation policy for gay and bisexual men reinforces tired stereotypes about gay men. Is this really the message we want to send to many healthy young men who go to donate blood for the first time, maybe at their high school blood drive or to help a friend or family member in need -- that their blood is worth less because of whom they love?
    It is my hope that through this terrible tragedy we are able to muster the courage to reverse this discriminatory ban once and for all, creating a small piece of good out of an event so endlessly tragic.