May 27, 2010 at 4:22 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
FDA to review gay blood donor ban

The Food & Drug Administration is starting a review process that could end the longstanding policy prohibiting gay and bisexual men from donating blood, according to the Federal Register.

A notice published earlier this month says the Department of Health & Human Services has scheduled a meeting next month of the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety & Availability to discuss the issue. The committee is charged with providing recommendations to HHS on blood supply and blood products.

The meeting, which is open to the public, is set to take place at the Universities of Shady Grove in Rockville, Md. Discussion is scheduled over the course of two days, June 10-11. The meetings on both days are set for 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Fred Sainz, a Human Rights Campaign vice president and spokesperson, said the meeting “will determine whether or not the blood ban is repealed and what conditions, if any, would apply going forward.”

The FDA instituted the blood donor ban in 1983 in response to the AIDS crisis. The policy prohibits any man who’s had sex even once with another man since 1977 from donating blood. At the time, the policy was deemed necessary because gay and bisexual men have a higher rate of HIV/AIDS infection.

LGBT rights supporters have been seeking to overturn the ban on the grounds that it unfairly targets gay and bisexual men — and that testing procedures for HIV/AIDS have improved significantly since 1983.

According to the Federal Register notice, the committee will consider “the most important factors … to consider in making a policy change” as well as whether current scientific information is sufficient to support ending the policy, and what studies and safety measures are needed before a change takes place.

In a statement last week, HRC President Joe Solmonese called on the FDA to end the blood donor ban, noting that the policy “cannot be justified by today’s science.”

“In 2010, we cannot continue to turn away healthy donors based on outdated stereotypes and a decades-old understanding of HIV and AIDS,” Solmonese said.

The HRC statement says that the organization plans to testify at the hearing and send a letter with an allied organization to urge a revision to FDA policy.

In a statement, Laurie Young, interim director of public policy and government affairs for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said the re-examination of the gay blood donor ban is “long overdue.”

“The lifetime ban was initiated in 1983, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis,” she said. “Nearly 30 years later, the science has changed but the outdated policy remains.”

Young said the re-examination of the policy should “take into account” new disease screening techniques for blood donations, and “distinguish between high-risk and low-risk behavior in donors.”

In recent months, efforts to lift the ban have become more visible as many lawmakers have publicly urged the FDA to change its policy. In March, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and 17 other senators wrote a letter to the FDA asking for an end to the ban, calling it “outdated, medically and scientifically unsound deferral criteria for prospective blood donors.”

In a statement to the Blade this week, Kerry said the administration “is doing the right thing” by re-examining the ban.

“I believe the ban strikes everyone as outdated based on the science,” he said. “It’s a relic and it doesn’t make sense, especially compared to other policies we have in place.”

Kerry noted that under current regulations, a man who’s had sex with a prostitute is able to donate blood, but a gay man in a committed monogamous relationship is prohibited.

“That just doesn’t make sense to me on its face,” he said. “I look forward to hearing the results of this meeting as well as the FDA’s recommendations.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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