More than 130 members of Congress, including several from Maryland, joined with progressive and gay rights advocacy groups to call on federal regulators Tuesday to lift a requirement that gay and bisexual men remain celibate for a year before donating blood.
They signed letters urging the Food and Drug Administration to change the rule, arguing that the ban is discriminatory and unnecessary because blood donations are tested thoroughly.
The push comes on the heels of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month that left 49 people dead and dozens of others injured. Many gay and bisexual men said they were unable to give blood because of the ban.
"After Orlando, a discriminatory FDA ban that requires gay men to be celibate for one year to donate meant that thousands of would-be healthy donors were turned away from Orlando blood banks that desperately needed their blood," said Courtney Hagen with the Capitol Hill team of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal political action committee. "Their community was under attack, but they were unable to do even the simplest of acts to help it heal."
The FDA in December lifted a more than three-decade-old lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood, but instituted the celibacy requirement. The agency likely won't change the policy soon.
FDA spokeswoman Tara Goodin said the agency would review the ban over the next few years, collecting data on how it affects the blood supply. The FDA would need enough research to support allowing gay and bisexual men to donate without celibacy, she said. There's not enough scientific evidence now to support the change.
"This process must be data-driven, so the time frame for future changes is not something we can predict," Goodin said.
Statistics show that a disproportionate number of gay men are HIV positive, Goodin said.
Data collected by the FDA found that gay male sex was associated with a 62-fold increase in the likelihood for being HIV-positive, she said. The increased risk for people with multiple heterosexual partners was 2.3 times greater, Goodin said. About two-thirds of all recent HIV infections in the United States occurred in gay men, who make up 2 percent of the population, she said.
All blood donated in the United States is screened for HIV as well as for other diseases such as hepatitis C and syphilis, which can survive in the blood and pass to a recipient. The testing cannot detect HIV in the early days of exposure, typically the first 9 to 14 days.
More rigorous testing and questioning of donors has made the passing of these infections much less likely than was once thought, but has not eliminated the possibility. The risk of getting HIV from a blood transfusion is lower than that of getting killed by lightning, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. HIV transmission rates from blood transfusion have dropped from 1 in 2,500 in the 1980s to 1 in 1.47 million, according to the FDA.
Gay men are not the only ones who must wait to give blood. People who have been treated for gonorrhea or syphilis or who have had sex with an intravenous drug user or HIV-positive partner in the past 12 months also must wait to donate. Anyone who has gotten a body piercing must wait 12 months unless the procedure was done at a state-regulated facility with sterile needles where ink isn't reused.
During Tuesday's briefing, two congressmen, along with three activist groups, said the rule unfairly discriminates against people based on their sexual orientation. LGBTQ groups National Gay Blood Drive and Equality Federation, which have collected tens of thousands of signatures as part of a grassroots petition drive to lift the ban, also were on hand for the briefing.
The groups said blood donation criteria should focus on behavior rather than sexual orientation. More than 4.2 million eligible blood donors are affected by the current requirement, the groups said.
"Gender of one's partner has nothing to do with whether one is engaged in risky behavior or not," said Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat and the first openly gay parent in Congress. "Nothing [is] inherently different about the blood of gay or bisexual Americans."
America's Blood Centers and the American Red Cross supported the 12-month deferral when it was announced, saying the top priority was the safety of both donors and recipients of blood.
Though not on hand for the briefing, several Maryland congressional members support lifting the ban.
"Blood donation policy should be based on science, not stigma," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It's clear that this outdated policy is having a negative impact on the supply of lifesaving blood for those in need, and it's time to lift the ban."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said: "The FDA should re-evaluate its blood donation policies to assess individual risk factors, rather than categories of people. We should work with the scientific community to ensure both the safety of the blood supply and the protection of civil rights of potential donors."
Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, also have 12-month deferrals for gay and bisexual men, according to the FDA. During the change in Australia in 2000 from a lifetime ban to a 12-month deferral, studies found no change in the safety risk to the blood supply.
One Baltimore group that works with gay and bisexual men said it would welcome a change in policy. Nate Sweeney, executive director of the LGBT Health Resource Center at Chase Brexton Health Care said that the policy now is based on stigma.
"It reaffirms stereotypes about gay and bisexual around HIV," Sweeney said.