June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month, an annual celebration of inclusivity and acceptance. At JPA Health, we believe it’s the perfect time to highlight a monumental act of progress in healthcare that occurred recently. On May 11, 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA) lifted the discriminatory ban that prohibited gay and bisexual men from donating blood. This policy change is an example of the kind of advances in equity and fairness in healthcare that our agency strives to create and promote every day.
The timing of the FDA’s announcement was fortuitous: It came just in time for World Blood Donor Day, which is held each June 14 to raise awareness of the need for safe blood and blood products. According to the American Red Cross, every two seconds someone in the United States requires a transfusion of blood or blood platelets, which cannot be manufactured and must be obtained through donation. Lifting the ban could lead to a much-needed increase in life-saving blood donations.
The original FDA policy was in place for over 40 years, dating back to 1977, and was first created during the AIDS epidemic with the intention of preventing the HIV virus from being transmitted to and infecting recipients of blood transfusions. At the time, homophobia fueled the harmful, discriminatory belief that gay men were responsible for the HIV epidemic, which has long since been disproven. As science and time progressed, critics charged that the ban was discriminatory and outdated for numerous reasons, notably that blood banks routinely screen for HIV in donor blood. Despite advances in our understanding of HIV, the FDA was slow to change policy. Though the lifetime ban preventing gay and bisexual men from donating blood was lifted in 2015, the FDA implemented a one-year abstinence requirement for potential donors. This requirement was shortened to a three-month period of abstinence in 2020. It was clear that gay and bisexual men were specifically targeted through these revised policies as well as through screenings, deferrals, and, ultimately, being prevented from donating.
The FDA’s refusal to lift the ban was harmful in a number of ways. It was a blatant act of discrimination toward members of the LGBTQIA+ community and worsened the stigma attached to HIV. The ban also affected the overall blood supply and limited access for communities in need. The Red Cross reports that approximately 29,000 units of red blood cells are needed every day in the United States. For perspective, consider that a single car accident victim can require as many as 100 units of blood, but the average red blood cell transfusion is only around 3 units.
With the overturning of the ban, blood banks have already been advised to start changing donor history questionnaires and procedures. The FDA now recommends asking all prospective blood donors a set of “individual risk-based questions,” such as if they have been sexually active with a new sexual partner, had multiple sexual partners, or have had anal sex in the past three months. If the answer to any part of the survey is yes, they will be deferred. These updates now align with the established blood donor policies and practices in Canada and the United Kingdom.
JPA Health is a proud ally to the LGBTQIA+ community, and we strongly believe that these changes benefit public health and drive the broader initiative for health equity. As an agency, we are committed to helping people lead healthier lives, and now with an expanded pool of potential donors and the likelihood of increasing our blood supply, we are excited to see what the future holds.
- The FDA: FDA Finalizes Move to Recommend Individual Risk Assessment to Determine Eligibility for Blood Donations | FDA
- NPR: FDA relaxes blood donation guidelines for gay and bisexual men : NPR
- America’s Blood Centers: U.S. Blood Donation Statistics and Public Messaging Guide – America’s Blood Centers (americasblood.org)
- The LA Times: Opinion: Lifting the stigma against gay men brings new blood donors to the Red Cross – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com)
- American Red Cross: Facts About Blood Supply In The U.S. | Red Cross Blood Services