Dems seek to lift gay blood donor ban

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U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.

The Blood Center of Wisconsin is inviting people to call “1-877-BE-A-HERO” to schedule appointments to donate. In the exchange, the nonprofit says the blood donor gets to save three lives and scores a free ticket to Summerfest.

But a federal ban adopted in 1983 – a crisis time when scientists, physicians, policy-makers and activists still had much to learn about HIV/ AIDS – continues to prevent gay and bisexual men from rolling up their sleeves and donating a pint.

In mid-June, U.S. Sen. John Kerry and U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley renewed their call for an end to the blanket ban, which prohibits any man who’s had sex with another man since 1977 from donating blood. Kerry, D-Mass., and Quigley, D-Ill., wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services urging action aimed at ending the ban and supporting a pilot study to develop alter- native criteria for gay and bisexual donors.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius confirmed a plan for such a study this spring.

Also this spring, HHS published a notice in the Federal Register stating that the “increased effectiveness of donor testing for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Hepatitis B Virus (HBV), syphilis and other infectious agents has greatly enhanced blood safety. As a result, questions have been raised about the need to continue an indefinite deferral of all MSM (men who have sex with men) and whether there could be blood donation by MSM who may not be at increased risk.”

Kerry said the pilot study, and a reliance on science should “pave the way to get this policy off the books.”

The letter he and Quigley wrote was signed by 60 other lawmakers, including Wisconsin’s Gwen Moore. It states, “We have seen vast advances in blood screening technology, policy changes in other nations and staunch opposition from the nation’s blood banks who have called the current ban ‘medically and scientifically unwarranted.’

“Still, healthy gay and bisexual men continue to be banned for life, while the FDA allows a man who has had sex with an HIV-positive woman to give blood after waiting only one year.”

The lawmakers described the donor policy as “inconsistent and indefensible,” turning away “healthy, willing donors, even when we face serious blood shortages.”

In a press statement, Quigley argued that “outdated and discriminatory policies like this must evolve to match advancements in science and technology.”

Two years ago, an HHS advisory committee described the blanket ban as “suboptimal,” but declined in a 9-6 vote to recommend repeal of the ban because “currently available scientific data are inadequate to sup- port change to a specific alternative policy.”

Quigley and Kerry also co-authored a letter calling for an end to the ban the same month the advisory committee made its decision.

“We’ve been working on this a long time,” Kerry said recently, adding that he’s confident the end of the ban is relatively near.