April 1, 2020 at 4:24 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Ocasio-Cortez, Maloney call for end to gay blood ban amid COVID-19 crisis
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has become the latest to call on FDA to lift its gay blood ban. (Photo by NRK Beta via Flickr)

The top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight & Reform and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday became the latest to call for an end to the policy barring gay and bisexual men from donating blood, which the Food & Drug Administration has continued despite the shortage in blood supply during the COVID-19 crisis.

The April 1 letter, signed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Ocasio-Cortez, argues current policy, which prohibits men who’ve had sex with men in the past 12 months from donating blood, is “not based on current science.”

“This antiquated policy is not based on current science, stigmatizes the LGBTQIA+ community, and undermines crucial efforts to increase the nation’s blood supply as the United States grapples with the coronavirus crisis,” the letter says.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has made an urgent plea for blood donations amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to a shortage in the U.S. blood supply. According to the letter, more than 4,000 blood drives across the country have been canceled due to coronavirus, resulting in around 130,000 fewer donations.

In response to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the letter, an FDA spokesperson said, “The FDA has received the letter and will respond directly to the representatives.”

The FDA spokesperson also reiterated the policy hasn’t changed, but added the agency is “actively considering the situation” amid the coronavirus crisis.

“At this time, the FDA’s recommendations regarding blood donor deferral for men who have sex with men have not changed, but we are actively considering the situation as the outbreak progresses,” the FDA spokesperson said.

In 1983, the FDA implemented a lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men amid fears in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. During the Obama administration in 2015, that policy was eased to a ban on donations from men who’ve had sex with men in the past year — but restrictions nonetheless remain in place.

Citing a 2014 study from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, Maloney and Ocasio-Cortez write current policy prevents 4.5 million people from being able to donate blood. Revising the ban, they write, could result in as many as 615,000 additional pints of blood each year.

“In light of the potential long-term impacts the coronavirus outbreak may have on the nation’s blood supply, we urge FDA to act swiftly in revising its policy so every person who can safely donate blood in the United States has the opportunity to do so,” the letter says.

In addition to calling for a change in policy, the House Democrats call on the FDA to provide a briefing regarding the current blood ban, any plans to revise it and efforts to ensure adequate blood supply during the coronavirus crisis.

A growing chorus of lawmakers have joined together to call on FDA to change its policy. Just last week, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in the U.S. Senate, led a group of 17 senators renewing their call for a change in policy.

Earlier this year, Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), along with Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), led a joint letter signed by 30 House Democrats calling for a change in policy. In March, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) also called for a change last month in a standalone letter. Also last month, State Sen. Brad Hoylman signed a letter calling on the FDA commissioner “to end the FDA’s longstanding policy banning gay men from donating blood.”

The White House hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment from the Blade on whether President Trump, who has built an anti-LGBTQ record, will call on the FDA to lift the ban.

In his LGBTQ policy platform, former Vice President Joseph Biden has said as president he’d implement a blood donation policy “based on science,” but has stopped short of explicitly pledging to lift the ban on donations from gay men. A spokesperson for Bernie Sanders told the Blade he’d “end the ban” if elected president.

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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