Online Extra: LGBTQ Agenda: Wiener calls for end of gay blood ban amid coronavirus-era shortages

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday March 24, 2020
Share this Post:
State Senator Scott Wiener has become the latest in a string of out elected officials to call for the Federal Food and Drug Administration to end its ban on gay men donating blood. Photo: Courtesy Senator Wiener's office
State Senator Scott Wiener has become the latest in a string of out elected officials to call for the Federal Food and Drug Administration to end its ban on gay men donating blood. Photo: Courtesy Senator Wiener's office

Citing worries of shortages in the nation's blood supply as American life comes to a standstill in response to the novel coronavirus, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) is calling for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to lift its ban on men who have had sex with men in the past year from giving blood.

"There is a severe national blood shortage," Wiener said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter March 23. "I'd love to go and give blood but as has always been the case I'm prohibited."

The FDA instituted a lifetime ban on men who have had sex with men donating blood in 1983, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, had not yet been identified and so there was no way to screen for it in blood donations — which put people in need of blood transfusions at risk.

But after the HIV antibody test was widely proliferated, the ban did not change in a meaningful way until 2015, during the Obama administration. The FDA's new rules do prohibit men who have had sex with men in the past year from donating blood, as well as any of their female partners.

For years many organizations and gay advocates have been calling for the ban to be removed in light of the changes that have occurred since the early 1980s.

Locally, gay former state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) pushed for changes to the federal policy for years. Gay current Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) has also advocated for the ban to be lifted.

The American Medical Association pushed the FDA to modify the policy in the mid-2010s.

Sarah Ellis, a lesbian who is the president and CEO of GLAAD, tweeted a link to a petition March 19 asking the FDA to change its guidance.

Wiener started a petition of his own that he announced March 23.

Wiener said that the Obama-era changes to the policy don't go far enough — especially in light of the recent shortages.

"We haven't heard (from the FDA), but over the years they have not been very responsive in the past," Wiener said. "The current rules have the same effect as a lifetime ban."

Wiener said that the effects of the drop-off in donations could be catastrophic.

"For anyone who needs a blood transfusion for any reason, whether it's surgery or essential health care, there might not be enough blood available," Wiener said. "This is a serious issue."

Wiener sent a letter (dated March 24) to FDA chief Dr. Stephen M. Hahn asking for a change in policy.

"This restriction is completely unnecessary," Wiener wrote. "Blood banks are required to test blood donations for HIV and other infections. Given the advancements in medical technology, these screenings are overwhelmingly accurate, with a short 10-day window. Yet despite the 10-day window, the FDA requires gay and bisexual men to be celibate for a full year.

"To be clear, a straight person who has had multiple sexual partners in the past week can donate blood, while gay and bisexual men must remain celibate for a full year to qualify," the letter added. "This distinction is discriminatory."

The day before Wiener sent his letter, lesbian state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) issued a news release calling on "healthy, eligible" Californians to donate blood. Atkins herself donated blood in San Diego, according to the release.

"One thing is undeniably certain in these very uncertain times — blood donations save lives, and are critically important right now given COVID-19," Atkins stated. "Many of us want some way to be able to help during times of crisis, and one of the best ways we can support each other and our community is to support our local blood banks and bolster the supply for those in need. I urge all Californians who can to please donate blood. You will make a difference in someone's life."

Asked by the B.A.R. about gay men not being eligible to donate, Atkins stated, "Two things are true. We need an adequate supply of donated blood while we try and make it through this unprecedented situation. We also need to ensure federal blood donation rules stop discriminating and become as science-driven as we need the COVID-19 response to be."

Atkins added, "While my colleagues and I in the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus and our counterparts across the country are advocating for that to happen, I hope everyone who can donate blood will, so everyone who needs blood can get it."

Health officials have been warning that the blood supply will deplete as blood drives have been forced to cancel or reschedule, and people have been staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus).

Blood banks are considered essential and are open in San Francisco in spite of the stay-at-home orders in effect in California, the Bay Area, and other municipalities.

Kevin Adler, a marketing and communications manager for Vitalant (in the Bay Area, formerly Blood Centers of the Pacific), said that Vitalant's blood supply isn't currently depleted but that the nonprofit's 50 canceled blood drives in the past two weeks are going to have an effect.

"We've had so many community blood drives canceled," Adler said in a phone call with the B.A.R. March 23. "With all that's going on, people aren't going to be able to volunteer."

Those blood drives would have collected 1,500 units of blood (there are 12 units in the human body), Adler said.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams urged Americans to donate blood to assist the nation's blood supply.

"One thing we should all consider, especially our millennials and, is donating blood," Adams said at a White House news conference March 19. "Donated blood is an essential part of caring for patients and one donation can save up to three lives. Blood centers are open now and in need of your donation."

Adler said he was grateful that Adams brought up the issue before a national audience, and wanted people to know that Vitalant is taking precautions against the novel coronavirus seriously, including social distancing recommendations.

"We take the temperatures of potential donors," Adler said. "All equipment used is one-time only, sterilized, medical-grade equipment. Donating is safe. You have to be healthy to donate in the first place."

There are six Vitalant donation centers in the Bay Area: two in San Francisco, one in San Mateo, one in Napa, one in Santa Rosa, and one in Fairfield.

When asked about the blood donation ban for sexually active gays and bisexuals, Adler said that Vitalant and other blood donation centers have to follow FDA guidelines.

The AMA, the Food and Drug Administration and the AABB (formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks) did not respond to requests for comment at press time.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly, usually on Tuesdays. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]