With a nationwide blood donation shortage caused by COVID-19, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lifted restrictions on men who have sex with men (MSM) to bolster the supply. Once COVID-19 shortages are over, these homophobic restrictions will be reinstated, unless the FDA creates a more inclusive policy.
If the restrictions are permanently lifted, about 4.2 million additional men would be eligible to donate blood, according to a 2014 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. Since about 8.7 percent of eligible men donate, removing the restrictions would likely bring about 360,000 new donors. This translates to 615,300 more pints of blood per year coming to the U.S. — a nation where, according to the American Red Cross, someone needs donated blood every two seconds.
Before the pandemic, MSM had to remain abstinent for one year prior to donating. Nearly 50,000 blood drives were either canceled or repositioned in 2020 as a result of social distancing measures. Facing supply shortages in March, the FDA amended the donation guidelines to three months of abstinence on April 2, 2020.
Although members of the LGBTQ+ community consider this a step in the right direction, enforcing an abstinence period longer than 10 days upon MSM blood donors has no scientific backing and exposes homophobic discrimination, which has existed in the guidelines for decades.
In 1983, the FDA implemented a total ban on blood donations from all MSM, citing fears of HIV/AIDS contaminated blood. After decades of outcries from medical professionals and members of the LGBTQ+ community, the FDA replaced the ban in 2015 by instituting a 12-month abstinence period. The FDA claimed this period would give medical officials enough time to keep the blood supply safe.
However, studies have shown that shortening the period does not compromise the safety of the blood supply. A 2009 study from the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research found that HIV can be detected within 10 days of potential exposure with nearly 100 percent accuracy. With tests nearly foolproof in identifying HIV-infected blood, even a three-month ban is unnecessary.
That the FDA has not amended its donation restrictions since this research has been published indicates that homophobia still influences medical policies and practices.
Two doctors at UC San Francisco wrote an open letter on April 16, 2020, calling on the FDA to eliminate the three-month constraint on MSM blood donations to help address a drastic drop in the blood supply during the pandemic. It has since been signed by more than 500 doctors, researchers, and public health specialists representing universities like UC Berkeley, Harvard Medical School, and John Hopkins University.
The April revisions will only last for the duration of the pandemic, meaning MSM donors will once again have to abide by the yearlong abstinence requirement when the pandemic ends.
Certain health restrictions are necessary for the safety of those receiving blood. But restrictions and guidelines not backed by science have no place in medicine. These restrictions on MSM blood donation are homophobic and prevent people from getting lifesaving treatments. By continuing them, the FDA shows it is willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of potential blood donations because of non-scientific stigma.