No Bad Blood

Jeffrey Olson, Editor Emeritus

 Disease has the strange quality of being largely egalitarian in whom it infects, and yet also serving as an instrument for the targeted persecution of certain people against other people. It is often the already persecuted minority that faces punishment for the disease.

   In the middle ages, and even up to the present day, Jewish people have been blamed for disease, from being accused of poisoning water mains during the Black Death to furthering some preposterous conspiracy towards a new world order according to the crazier bigots of today. Immigrant groups have been commonly blamed for spreading disease, and disease has often been used as an argument for limiting immigration. During the early 2000s there was an increased amount of hostility against asians in America as a byproduct of the SARS epidemic. And today, we can see much the same discrimination against asians in the midst of this Covid-19 crisis.

   However, I’ll be talking about a different group, different disease, and a different form of legal discrimination that came about in the late 20th century. The group being the LGBT+ community, the disease being HIV/AIDS, and the discrimination that is found in the way we donate blood. 

   In 1983, there was a policy put in place by the federal government, banning all men who have sex with men from donating blood. They also banned all women who have sex with men who have sex with men, and they banned transgender individuals who were assigned male at birth and have sex with males from donating blood. 

   At that time, the AIDS crisis had reached its height, and there was some worry about the virus infecting the national blood supply. The virus tended to, and continues to, infect the LGBT+ community at a higher rate than the general population. This policy was meant to prevent the spread of the virus, even if blood is rigorously tested before its use, and the fact that this policy would have no effect on the infected people who do not fall into the categories it lays out.

   Since this measure was put in place, it has been criticized by social activists and health officials. It could easily be seen as an excuse to practice bigotry against LGBT+ individuals, preventing them from assisting their fellow Americans, and essentially telling them that they’ve got something wrong with their blood, regardless of whether they have the virus.

   In 2015, the policy was relaxed by the FDA. The ban, or “deferment” as the FDA calls it, now lasts 12 months since unprotected sexual contact. Which is definitely a step in the right direction.

   I had found out about all of this a couple years ago, but I had been reminded of it when I went to donate blood. I filled out a questionnaire provided for me before I went to donate, and it was asked. It had irked me a little seeing the question in the first place, but it really bothered me later when they pricked my finger and tested my blood. So clearly the blood is going to be tested before use in any case, but there is still this arbitrary restriction on who can donate.

   This may seem unimportant on the grand scale of things, but blood donation is an important service in the medical world. There needs to be a constant supply of blood to care for the sick and injured of the world, and simply not enough people give theirs. Limiting the pool of people who can donate isn’t helping the problem.

   The shortage of blood has become a major issue during the current pandemic. So much so that the FDA has actually loosened the policy further. It’s now a three-month deferment, at least until the blood supplies return to normal levels.

   The US isn’t alone in this sort of restriction. There are countries like China, Greece, or Turkey, along with many others that hang on to a life-time ban for men who have sex with men. There’s also countries with no deferral, like Mexico, Russia, or South Africa, among others. Italy, interestingly enough, bans donation of blood due to high-risk sexual contact, regardless of the partner’s sex, which seems like a more reasonable policy, though just making sure all the blood is tested is likely the best way of going about it.

   Blood donation is vital for our medical services, especially now. Having these arbitrary barriers for people who honestly want to help is criminal. The FDA’s policy on men who have sex with men was misguided, and built on an atmosphere of fear and bigotry. It needs to be removed entirely, and permanently for the health of the nation.