Blood Donations, Sexual Orientation, and Societal Health

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Blood Donations, Sexual Orientation, and Societal Health

image by: Matt Buck

The FDA is considering lifting restrictions on blood donation based on sexual orientation. If they do, increasing the blood supply will be only the most straightforward benefit.

In the early 1980s, homosexual men were dying, and no-one knew why. "The gay plague," it was called. But as early as 1983 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced what any scientifically-inclined person already knew: sexual orientation had nothing to do with it.

HIV/AIDS (as the syndrome is now known) is an infectious disease transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids (not including saliva). An individual's sexual behavior can increase the risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS. But because sexual behavior depends on the individual, knowing someone's sexual orientation does not give you any information about whether that person is particularly at risk. As the CDC noted, there was no such thing as a universal gay lifestyle.

However, with a bow in the direction of "better safe than sorry," because the preponderance of HIV/AIDS cases were gay men, in 1985 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "recommended that blood establishments indefinitely defer male donors who have had sex with another male, even one time, since 1977."

While there is little doubt that the FDA was well intended, and while such a sweeping measure may have contributed to reducing the volume of HIV-contaminated blood available for donation, it was an act of prejudice. Not allowing a gay man to donate blood even if he tested negative for HIV and had never engaged in unprotected sex is to pass judgment on an individual based on preconceptions about a group to which belongs rather than on facts about the individual—the very definition of prejudice.

In December the FDA finally emended its policy, reducing the lifetime ban to 12 months from most recent sexual contact with another man. Now Members of Congress are now urging the FDA to rid itself entirely of such a prejudicial proscription, which the American Medical Association notes "do[es] not align with scientific evidence and best ethical practices in public policy."

To be sure, there is a practical benefit of lifting the ban. More blood donors means more blood. But just as with the U.S. military's repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," which allowed members of the LGBTQ community to serve openly, the question of more available personnel or resources is secondary. The main reason all such discriminatory policies should be eradicated is that they contribute to bigotry among the general population.

A central tenet of American society is that all people are born with the same inherent worth. We allow that people's actions during the course of their lifetime can alter their relative value (there is no law, for example that says a clerk at McDonald's must be paid the same as a congressperson or that all NBA players must have identical contracts), and even that a person can lose at least some of her basic constitutional rights (such as by committing murder), but the basic precept is that you don't get treated differently than I do because you were born in a different state or with different skin color.

To be sure, this is not the reality on the ground. Sexism and racism have yet to be purged from our culture. Changing laws is easier and more immediate than changing hearts. But the last bastions of institutionally codified bigotry are those that stand against the LGBTQ community being treated as substantively the same as the rest of the population.

This is the main reason why the FDA's policy must go. Any policy that treats People X differently than People Y (where Y = "everyone not-X") for reasons other than their actions sends a message to society that these people are inherently different, that they should not be judged/treated/regarded by (to quote MLK) "the content of their character," but rather by characteristic inherent to their persons. That message is the foundation for bigotry, for bigotry can exist only where substantive difference is perceived. And when our very government decrees that People X are so different from the rest of us that they must enjoy fewer opportunities regardless of each person's individual character, People Y are not going to treat People X as equals. Legally they aren't equals, so….

If I want to date you, your gender and sexual orientation legitimately matter to me. As a male heterosexual, only female heterosexual are potentially romantically compatible with me. If I need a blood transfusion, there also factors that legitimately matter. As someone whose blood type is O positive, your fitness for donating blood to me rests on whether you are type O and whether your blood is free of blood-borne pathogens. Gender and sexual orientation don't enter into it.

Ensuring that people can receive blood transfusions without compromising their health is important. Doing so has everything to do with screening the blood in question, and there is no separate sort of test of screening the blood of gay men. The only thing a policy such as the FDA's achieves is to contribute to the poor health of American society. It's long past time to purge this and all other such sickness from our country's corpus.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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