Kerry, Casey urge repeal of gay blood-donor ban

A coalition of U. S. senators, led by former presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), urged the Food and Drug Administration to lift the more-than 25-year-old statute that prevents gay men from donating blood.

Kerry’s letter, sent to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, was also signed by Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, as well as 15 other Democrats.

“It is well past time to end this discriminatory prohibition,” Casey said last week. “It makes no sense to have a baseless ban like this. We should encourage the lifesaving benefits that can be provided by those who give blood.”

The FDA instituted the ban in 1983, permanently barring any man who had sex with another man since 1977 from donating blood. The policy was meant to curb the spread of HIV, hepatitis or other diseases for which MSM were determined to be at high risk.

The FDA’s policy also permanently prohibits anyone who has received payment for sex, injected intravenous drugs or tested positive for HIV since 1977.

In 2006, the American Red Cross, international blood-donor agency AABB and other health groups recommended that the FDA amend its policy to allow MSM to be subject to the same one-year deferral process it currently poses for some other at-risk populations — such as those who solicited sex workers or had sex with an HIV-positive person — but the FDA retained the ban.

In the letter issued March 4, Kerry acknowledged that the ban had “practical and well-intentioned origins first established at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, when modern screening procedures and advanced testing methods for HIV were yet to be developed.”

He noted, however, that understanding and detection of HIV have made great strides in the past two decades, and that current FDA protocol requires that all donated blood be screened through two tests that would identify the virus.

“Not a single piece of scientific evidence supports the ban,” Kerry said. “A law that was once considered medically justified is today simply outdated and needs to end, just as last year we ended the travel ban against those with HIV.”

Anthony Tornetta, regional communications manager at the American Red Cross Penn-Jersey Blood Services Region, said his agency would welcome the policy change.

“If the senators’ effort helps to lift a longstanding policy that the FDA has, it’s exciting news and we’d be more than encouraged that we could start collecting blood from any demographics affected,” Tornetta said. “We’re excited to see this.”

The other cosigners included Kirstin Gillibrand (N.Y.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Russ Feingold (Wisc.), Mark Udall (Colo.), Al Franken (Minn.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Tom Harkin (Ohio), Mark Begich (Ala.), Roland Burris (Ill.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.).

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].