Policy & Science & Feelings

Part of the massive changes sweeping our culture right now are far from the battle-lines (past or present) of how we define marriage and who can marry, or how we define gender and sexuality.  In mainstreaming alternate sexual and marriage practices, other areas of public policy are affected if they are seen as out of step with the insistence of full cultural acceptance and endorsements of practices that were once peripheral or illegal.

Like who can donate blood.

When AIDS emerged in the early 80’s, along with the recognition that it could be transmitted via blood, a firewall was put in place – no homosexual men could donate blood.  Ever.  The disproportionate spread of HIV among homosexual men was seen as a clear rationale for denying gay men the option of donating blood.

A year ago this policy was modified, so that only men currently actively sexually involved with other men were prohibited from donating blood.  Only men who have not been sexually active with another man for over 12 months can donate blood.  The twelve-month time-frame was chosen because it is consistent with limitations on people with other health concerns or risks, such as those who recently received a blood transfusion themselves, or were accidentally exposed to another person’s blood.

But even this is seen by some as unfair.  In the wake of the Orlando shootings last week, many gay people have wanted to donate blood but are not allowed to do so, and they see this as unfair.  This despite the fact that there has been no reported shortage of blood available to the victims.  But there are some who see this scientific policy on blood donations as discriminatory, and believe that men who are “lower risk” in their active, current sexual relations with other men should be allowed to donate.

Of course, all of this is based on the honesty of the person wanting to donate blood.  Anyone can lie on the survey beforehand, denying active homosexual activity – or other risky behaviors – and thereby allowed to donate blood.  One argument for further reducing or eliminating the ban on male homosexual blood donations is that if the restrictions were less severe, there would be more people willing to donate, or more people who are honest about their sexual activity.

I wonder if there are demands for a stop to other blood donation policies.  Is it discriminatory that I shouldn’t be allowed to donate blood for a year if I was exposed to another person’s blood?  Is it discriminatory to prevent transfusion recipients from donating for a year?

As we legitimize (or invent) practices and preferences, these decisions have far-reaching implications.  Advocates for eliminating waiting periods for homosexual men to donate blood claim that there is no evidence that waiving such a waiting period puts the population at greater risk for HIV infection from blood transfusions.  But other reports simply indicate that there isn’t enough evidence – data collected – to know one way or the other.

Claiming discrimination rather than utilizing actual data to help determine public health policy is a dangerous means of creating policies.  But the argument has been so successful in other arenas of public debate, it’s hardly surprising to see it crop up here.




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