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Gay Groups Decry New FDA Rule Requiring Celibacy to Donate Blood

Gay rights groups rejected a FDA decision to require gay men to abstain from sex for a year before donating blood, calling it "offensive and harmful."
Image: A Red Cross worker as she prepares to take blood from an unidentified male donor in California
A Red Cross worker prepares to take blood from an unidentified male donor in California. TOM KURTZ / AFP - Getty Images

Gay rights groups rejected a decision by the FDA to ease the blanket ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood, saying the agency’s requirement that this group of donors abstain from sex for a year before giving was “offensive” and imposed a “de facto lifetime ban.”

The FDA’s move was intended to end a lifetime prohibition put in place in 1983, during the early days of the AIDS crisis. Medical groups have said advances in HIV testing make such a ban unnecessary, and gay rights organizations have said it perpetuates stereotypes. In November, a panel of blood safety experts convened by the Department of Health and Human Services voted overwhelmingly in favor of moving to a one-year celibacy rule.

But gay rights groups objected. The new rule was “offensive and harmful,” and would merely continue “to fan the flames of the outdated stereotype that HIV is only a ‘gay disease,’” the Gay Men’s Health Crisis said in a statement.

“This new policy does not require heterosexual blood donors to be celibate for one year. Some may believe this is a step forward, but in reality, requiring celibacy for a year is a de facto lifetime ban,” the group said in a statement. “Since the first days of epidemic, GMHC has witnessed first-hand how fear, stigma, and discrimination have fueled the spread of HIV.”

The new rule was a step in the right direction, “but blood donation policy should be based on current scientific knowledge and experience, not unfounded fear, generalizations and stereotypes,” said Scott Schoettes, Lambda Legal’s director of HIV Policy. He said policy should be focused on the conduct of the potential donor and not on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The FDA's old questionnaire for blood donors asks men whether they have had sex with a man since 1977. The new donation policy would put the United States in line with Britain, Australia and Japan. The FDA said it had "carefully examined and considered the available scientific evidence," including several recently completed studies.

But the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association challenged that, saying any “categorical” donation deferment for gay or bisexual men for any length of time was “arbitrary, stigmatizing and not scientifically supported.” The group called on the FDA to commit to developing a policy addressing specific at-risk sexual behavior regardless of sexual orientation or gender.