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Despite pressure, ban on gay blood donors endures

Wednesday - 9/18/2013, 4:38pm  ET

DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- The U.S. gay-rights movement has achieved many victories in recent years -- on marriage, military service and other fronts. Yet one vestige of an earlier, more wary era remains firmly in place: the 30-year-old nationwide ban on blood donations by gay and bisexual men.

Dating from the first years of the AIDS epidemic, the ban is a source of frustration to many gay activists, and also to many leading players in the nation's health and blood-supply community who have joined in calling for change.

In June, the American Medical Association voted to oppose the policy. AMA board member William Kobler called it "discriminatory and not based on sound science." Last month, more than 80 members of Congress wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services, criticizing the lifetime ban as an outdated measure that perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes about gay men.

On some college campuses, students have urged boycotts of blood drives until the ban is repealed. Over the summer, activists organized a "National Gay Blood Drive" -- asking gay men to visit blood centers, take tests to show their blood was safe, and then try to donate in defiance of the ban.

In the face of such pressure, the Food and Drug Administration -- the HHS agency that regulates America's blood supply -- has been unwavering. The lifetime ban will be eased, the FDA says, "only if supported by scientific data showing that a change in policy would not present a significant and preventable risk to blood recipients."

Under the auspices of HHS, a few studies are in progress that might lay the groundwork for a review of the policy. Department spokeswoman Diane Gianelli said the studies reflect a commitment to "continuously improving the safety and availability of the nation's blood supply."

However, some activists are impatient at the prospect of a research process that's likely to extend over several years with an uncertain outcome. They argue that the U.S. could move now to emulate Spain and Italy, where blanket bans on gay blood donations have been replaced by policies that ban donations by anyone -- gay or straight -- who's recently had unsafe sex, while allowing donations from gays and bisexuals whose blood is tested as safe and whose sexual behavior is deemed to pose no risk.

"We do not think HHS is moving fast enough," said Jason Cianciotto of Gay Men's Health Crisis, a New York-based nonprofit engaged in AIDS prevention and care.

Cianciotto said the ban "perpetuates the stigma that gay and bisexual men are dangerous to public health," and thus undercuts efforts to combat HIV.

The FDA says its policy is not intended as a judgment on donors' sexual orientation, and instead is based on the documented risk of blood infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex.

According to the FDA, men who have had sex with other men represent about 2 percent of the U.S. population, yet accounted for at least 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S. in 2010.

The FDA implemented the ban in 1983, when health officials were first recognizing the risk of contracting AIDS via blood transfusions. Under the policy, blood donations are barred from any man who has had sex with another man at any time since 1977 -- the start of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S.

Critics say the policy has been rendered obsolete by advances in testing which can which can detect HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- within days of infection.

Some critics say the lifetime ban could be replaced with a policy barring blood donations on the basis of gay sex within the past 12 months, or the past five years -- as Canada recently decided to do. Others say there should be no set time periods, and that the screenings -- as in Spain and Italy -- should focus on high-risk behaviors of both gay and straight people, while making it easier for gays in monogamous, safe-sex relationships to qualify as donors.

"It's very personal to a lot of people who would like to donate and yet are barred while knowing themselves not to be at risk," said Brian Moulton, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group.

"People perceive of giving blood as a civic duty," Moulton added. "The current policy puts gay and bisexual men who are going to be honest in an awkward position during a blood drive. People ask, 'Why aren't you giving blood?'"

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