At first, I greeted the news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will review the nation’s lifetime ban on men who have (had) sex with men with a smile. With everything we know now about HIV/AIDS compared to 1985, when the rule was instituted, it’s about time. But the solution offered by an advisory group for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) left me gobsmacked.

Gay men would be able to donate blood. So far so good, right? But if they have had sex with another man over the previous year they cannot donate blood for a year. Say what now? Let me tell you, for most gay men that’s still a lifetime ban. While I recognize that the proposal is a step in the right direction, its impact will be imperceptible.

I’m with the good folks at the AIDS Institute. They are urging the FDA to recommend “that gay and bisexual men be able to donate blood just like any other person.” The Washington-based organization makes another useful recommendation. “The U.S. blood donation policy should not be based on sexual orientation,” the group wrote in its letter to the FDA, “but rather level of risk.” This isn’t an unreasonable position considering that all donations undergo two separate tests before it sluices into the nation’s blood supply. And it makes sense when you consider who can give blood.

The AIDS Institute points out that a heterosexual man who has had sex with an HIV-positive woman more than a year ago can donate blood. A June 2010 letter to that HHS advisory committee signed by 43 members of Congress, including now-Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted a number of “unjustifiable double standards.”

For instance, there is no prescribed consideration of safer sex practices, individuals who routinely practice unsafe heterosexual sex face no deferral period at all while monogamous and married homosexual partners who practice safe sex are banned for life. In fact, a woman who has sexual relations with an HIV positive male is deferred for one year, while a man who has had sexual relations with another man, even a monogamous partner, is deferred for life.  Even individuals who have paid prostitutes for heterosexual sex face a deferral period of one year while gay men face a lifetime ban.

Jeffrey Crowley, the first AIDS czar under President Obama, assures me this is an important first step. “It is a big change.  Most gay men will still be deferred from donating (because we are sexually active), but it won’t be a lifetime ban,” said Crowley, who is now the program director of the National HIV/AIDS Initiative at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law. “[It p]uts our policy more in line with other developed countries.” As The Post reported, Japan, Australia and Great Britain all have one-year bans on gay men blood donations. Canada has a five-year ban.

“Adopting this one-year deferral policy while watching for increased transmissions and doing further research is probably a positive path forward,” Crowley added. “[M]ore changes will be needed in the future.” Changes that take into account blood donors’ level of risk would be the right way to go.

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