Students protest blood ban

Jessica Allen

Northwestern students holding signs with the messages “THE FDA SAYS NO GAY BLOOD, PLEASE” and “PLEASE DONATE BLOOD! PLEASE WRITE TO CONGRESS SO I CAN DONATE MY HEALTHY BLOOD, TOO!” among others were on display for people passing by the Rock on Thursday.

The students stood quietly, collected signatures to post on petition-hosting website and occasionally conversed with those who walked by and had questions. Their signs of protest concerned a Food and Drug Administration policy that bans men who have had sex with other men (MSM) at least once since 1977 from donating blood.

“We’ve had a lot of people really upset,” Communication junior John Aldous said.Communication sophomore Frankie DiCiaccio said many people walked by and simply asked, “That’s a law?”

The students, working as a group of friends, said it was due to the lack of awareness about the policy that they decided to hold the demonstration.

Going back to ’85

Aldous and Communication freshman Tristan Powell said the issue of the ban on “gay” blood donation came up a few days ago when they were talking with another friend about Powell being unable to donate blood marrow due to his sexuality.

Under the FDA policy, these individuals are prevented from donating “because MSM are, as a group, at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and certain other infections that can be transmitted by transfusion,” according to the FDA’s website.

The ban, which began prior to the availability of HIV tests in early 1985, has been in its current form since September 1985, according to a recent notice from the Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s so bizarre,” DiCiaccio said of the policy, which was crafted during the middle of an epidemic that has changed drastically over the years.

In light of Student Blood Services’ blood drive this week, the group said they decided to recruit donors while spreading awareness of their inability to participate.

The students approached Student Blood Services, who were initially confused and concerned the students would interrupt the blood drive, Powell said. After further conversation, the group was “actually interested” in what the students could accomplish, he said.

“We’re trying to get more blood donors because we can’t donate,” Powell said.

Risky business?

Earlier this week, Powell said he attended the campus blood drive to find out more about the donation process.

During the “dehumanizing” screening process, Powell said he asked what contact with other males would make him ineligible. He said he had little privacy, as a group of blood drive employees stood nearby for training purposes while a woman explained to him the contact boundaries.

In the end, Powell said he was essentially told that lying in bed with another male behind closed doors, even if the two were just cuddling, made him ineligible to donate blood.

“A lot of them don’t know where to draw the line,” he said. “Since I’m gay, my blood isn’t good enough for another person.”

Aldous said he used to lie about his sexuality to be eligible to give his healthy blood but stopped because lying about it is a federal crime.

Powell pointed out what he said is an inconsistency in terms of risky sexual behavior in the FDA’s policies, in contrast to being in a monogamous gay relationship.

“If I had sex with a prostitute a year ago, I could give blood,” Powell said.

National stage

The students’ actions come at a time when, nationally, the ban on blood donation from MSM is gaining attention.

Multiple media sources site the current debate over the ban and the efforts of organizations, including the American Red Cross, to convince the FDA to revoke the ban.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote an editorial in March for Bay Windows, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender newspaper in New England, titled “Outdated, unnecessary ban on blood donations should be lifted.” In the piece, he said “not a single piece of scientific evidence supports the ban.”

“It’s more than a little hard for most people to believe that federal law today bans gay men from donating blood,” Kerry wrote.

The three largest blood donation organizations­-the American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers, and AABB-all call the ban “medically and scientifically unwarranted,” he wrote.

At the NU blood drive, Jullisa Arila, supervisor for blood collection agency LifeSource, said LifeSource employees don’t question the FDA’s policies.

“It’s mixed reviews,” she said of the ban. “We can never be too safe with anything.”

Arila said she has a gay sister and doesn’t believe the ban is in existence to be “spiteful” toward homosexuals.

“If they could change it, I’m pretty sure they would,” she said.

A ‘warm-up’

Other senators joined Kerry in requesting the FDA to review the ban, and the Department of Health and Human Services announced it will meet in June to discuss the policy.

Powell said the FDA could at a minimal level adjust regulations to ban only those who have had male-to-male sexual contact recent enough to be within the window period of HIV infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV can be detected in people at an average of 25 days after exposure. In “rare” cases it can take up to six months for HIV to be detectable, though infection can be detected in 97 percent of people within three months of exposure.

The students plan to connect with other campuses next year and continue to press the issue, which they believe can be overturned just by spreading awareness of the policy, Aldous said.

“We’ve decided this is kind of a warm-up,” he said.

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