Members of Congress Urge HHS to End Discriminatory Blood Donation Ban

On August 1, 2013, more than 80 bipartisan members of the Senate and House of Representatives signed a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius regarding the FDA’s lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM).  The letter asks for information about HHS’s progress toward reassessing blood donation criteria for MSM. The current policy turns away healthy willing blood donors, even during severe blood shortages. Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL), Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) co-wrote the letter after one of Warren’s constituents’ blood was rejected when he tried to donate after the Boston Marathon bombings.

When the HIV/AIDS epidemic began over 30 years ago, the FDA implemented a lifetime ban on blood donations from MSM, regardless of risk factors. Since at least 1997, the American Association of Blood Banks, the Red Cross, and America’s Blood Centers have advocated revising the policy and removing the lifetime ban.  According to the legislators’ letter, advances in blood screening technology and the scientific community’s increasing understanding of the HIV/AIDS virus have rendered the ban “medically and scientifically unwarranted.”

HHS convened a non-partisan group of scientific experts in 2010 for the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability. The Committee concluded that the lifetime ban should be changed because it prohibits low-risk donors from giving blood, but allows donations from high-risk individuals. In response to the Committee’s findings, HHS proposed multiple studies, including a pilot program allowing MSM donation on a small scale to determine the feasibility and safety of changing the policy. To date, the pilot program has not begun despite accepting comments through June 2012 on the study’s design. The legislators express deep concern about the timeline of HHS’s research and request that HHS provide information to clarify the comments on the policy, a report to leadership on the study’s design, and a plan and timeline to consider the results of ongoing studies and task forces. They further seek to know whether HHS plans to use data from countries that currently allow MSM donation as it considers an alternate policy, and if HHS does not plan to use this data, they demand to know why not.

More recently, the American Medical Association passed a resolution opposing the lifetime ban and expressing support for the use of rational, scientifically-based deferral periods that are fairly and consistently applied to blood donors. This resolution mirrors the position adopted by the Red Cross, which supplies nearly half of the blood in the United States. Both state that the current policy is not based in science, and is discriminatory.