Updated: Nov 27, 2020
As the University Blood Initiative continues to advocate for more accessible, equitable blood donation, we are turning our attention to one of its most infamous, hotly contested barriers. For the next week, we will be discussing the history, impacts, and future of LGBTQ+ blood donor discrimination, from the AIDS epidemic to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the 1980s, the United States has upheld intense donation restrictions on potential MSM (men who have sex with men), though the lifetime ban has changed to a shorter-term deferral period. The ban remains a point of contention, and its abolition is an ongoing movement.
The future of MSM blood donation is uncertain. The FDA’s current emergency ruling is supposed to be a temporary one to be reassessed in a matter of months--it is to stay in place through the pandemic, and have new guidelines implemented, which, given the state of the nation’s COVID-19 response, is likely to last through the year. We don’t know what will come next. The FDA has promised revised permanent guidelines to be implemented within 60 days of the emergency measures being lifted, but what those look like are uncertain.
Hopefully, the FDA will listen to the scientists, activists (GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign have been particularly vocal in the past few months), Democratic lawmakers, and even late-night TV hosts pushing for change. Maybe, in a post-pandemic world, whenever that is, it will turn its blanket restrictions into something resembling Italy or Spain’s case-by-case policies.
In late April, ABC News reporting suggested that the FDA is beginning to listen. In response to a viral Facebook post from a would-be plasma donor, the FDA issued a statement, saying, in part, “the FDA is committed to considering alternatives to the time-based deferral for men who have sex with men by generating the scientific evidence that will support an effective individual risk assessment-based blood donor questionnaire.” The spokesperson continued to say that the FDA is “working to commence a pilot study that will enroll about 2000 men who have sex with men and who would be willing to donate blood” at community health centers across the United States. It is in its early stages and further details are scarce, but this is the first time the FDA has mentioned such a study, and it’s a promising sign for future developments.
Pressure is mounting, and with the FDA’s emergency authorization of antibody-containing convalescent plasma therapy to treat COVID-19, we need donations more than ever. (Though the efficacy of this treatment is still unproven and the authorization is controversial, early studies appear tentatively promising.) Barring donors for their sexuality alone not only upholds homophobic stigmas, it may cost countless lives. The FDA’s pandemic policies are what they are, but that does not mean we can’t hope for a more equitable future. We’ve come a long way since the 1980s, but it is long past time to stop legitimizing hatred in the name of science.