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Mountain West Officials Call FDA Rules On Gay Blood Donors ‘Antiquated And Discriminatory’

Bryan Jones

State officials from around the country, including four in the Mountain West, have signed a letter to the Food and Drug Administration asking the agency to make it easier for more people to donate blood.

Some potential donors have to practice months of abstinence before they can give blood. The rule only applies to certain people — namely, men who have sex with men. It also applies to women who’ve had sex with men who have, in turn, had sex with other men.

It used to be that gay and bisexual men couldn’t donate blood at all. In 2015, the FDA allowed donations, but only after a year of celibacy. Then in early April, amid an “urgent and immediate need for blood,” the FDA changed its rule again, dropping the required period of abstinence down to three months. 

Howie Morales, New Mexico’s lieutenant governor, said that isn’t enough.

“Obviously in this country we’re under a national crisis, and one of those crises we’re seeing is a shortage of blood,” he said.

A lot of people who are willing to donate cannot under the current regulations. 

Back in 2014, researchers estimated that if all limitations were removed on men who have sex with men, about 360,000 more men would be likely to donate blood. 

Morales signed the letter along with other lieutenant governors across the country, including those from Nevada, Montana and Colorado. They say requiring certain people to practice celibacy for any period of time before donating blood is an "antiquated and discriminatory" practice. 

As the FDA announced, the updated recommendations requiring three months of abstinence “are expected to remain in place after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.” Brad Sears said that’s certainly progress.

“All of it is progress and good for our blood supply and public health in general,” said Sears, a distinguished scholar with the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, which studies sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. But, he said, “There’s no reason to be singling out men who have sex with men for any specific restrictions on their ability to donate to the blood supply.”

Rather, he said, there are basic questions that should be asked of all blood donors. Things like, “Do you have HIV? Do you have any other sexually transmitted infection? Have you engaged in any sexual practices in the last one to two weeks that could have exposed you to an STI?”

“Those are all valid questions that actually get to the types of behaviors or conditions that would mean somebody should be screened out from donating blood,” Sears said. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico and support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.