Members of Congress Push Effort to End LGBTQ+ Discrimination in Blood Donations
Today Reps. Barbara Lee (CA-13), Val B. Demings (FL-10), Mike Quigley (IL-05), Carolyn B. Maloney (NY-12), Adam B. Schiff (CA-28), and Ritchie Torres (NY-15) sent a letter to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Acting Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock. Writing in advance of the 5th anniversary of the Pulse Shooting, the members stated strong support of the Assessing Donor Variability and New Concepts in Eligibility (ADVANCE) Study.
On June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed and 53 others shot and injured at the Pulse Nightclub, an LGBTQ+ gathering place in Orlando. The community rallied to support the victims and survivors, but many gay and bisexual men were prohibited from donating desperately needed blood due to outdated and discriminatory FDA donor policies.
The ADVANCE Study, which includes efforts in Orlando and elsewhere around the country, seeks to modernize the science and collect new data to ensure that these outdated policies can be safely and finally overturned.
Said Rep. Lee: “As we remember the victims of the horrific Pulse Shooting five years ago, we must honor their lives with action. It is deeply unjust and unacceptable that in the wake of this tragedy, many individuals in the LGBTQ+ community were prevented from donating blood. The FDA’s current ban on blood donation is not rooted in science and will only perpetuate stigma and discrimination. As the Co-chair of the HIV/AIDS Caucus and a founding member and a Vice-chair of the LGBTQ+ Equity Caucus, I will continue working alongside my colleagues and the LGBTQ+ community to fight these harmful policies and advocate for change.”
Said Rep. Demings: “After the Pulse Shooting five years ago, we swore to honor the victims with action, not just words. I will forever be proud of how our community came together following the shooting to offer support and comfort to the survivors and their families. But as dozens of our neighbors and friends were fighting for their lives, many in our LGBTQ community were prohibited from donating blood due to an outdated policy not based on science.
“After working on this issue for years, I am grateful that the FDA is finally taking steps to update the science and take the next steps towards finally expanding the pool of American blood donors and helping us to save lives and give every American the best possible chance to survive when tragedy strikes. I strongly encourage any Central Floridian who wants to participate in this important and groundbreaking study to contact The Center for more information.”
Said Rep. Quigley: “When tragedy strikes, all Americans should have the option to donate blood, regardless of sexual orientation. This move by the FDA, while long overdue, is a step in the right direction. It’s a step towards fairness and equality for all who seek to give back when help is needed. This decision not only expands rights for gay and bisexual men, but will help mitigate any concern of blood shortages in the face of a local or national disaster. I look forward to reviewing the findings of the ADVANCE Study, and what this will mean for expanding much needed opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.”
Said Rep. Maloney: “For too long, outdated restrictions have prevented gay and bisexual men who can safely donate their blood from doing so. These blanket restrictions are discriminatory and wrong. When blood is urgently needed across this country—like it was in New York City at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and in Orlando following the tragedy at Pulse Nightclub—everyone should be able to do their part. But for too many gay and bisexual men, the FDA’s current policies are a barrier to helping their communities. And as a result, we are all worse off. The ADVANCE Study is a crucial step toward ensuring that our nation’s health policies are based on science, not stigma.”
Said Rep. Schiff: “Heinous acts of violence and bigotry like the Pulse Nightclub shooting five years ago are fueled by ingrained biases against LGBTQ+ people, and we have an obligation to root out that bigotry wherever it may be found,” said Schiff. “The FDA’s discriminatory ban on gay and bisexual men giving blood is unscientific and arbitrary. It’s time to step away from old prejudices and into the future.”
Said Rep. Torres: “Removing the FDA’s homophobic restrictions would expand the pool of eligible blood donors by more than 4 million people. That is four million more people who would be able to give lifesaving blood to those who desperately need it in times of major crisis like the current pandemic. The findings of the ADVANCE Study would not only allow us to respect the lives of those who need blood but also respect the unencumbered authority of science. In order to respect and honor the lives of those lost in the heinous Pulse Nightclub Shooting, we must take action that leads to fairness and equality for all.”
Said Dr. George A. Wallace, Executive Director for The Center: “Being part of the ADVANCE Study has been rewarding, especially knowing that this could be a catalyst to changing the policies as it pertains to gay and bisexual men donating blood. For members of the LGBTQ+ community, the study is a significant step in the right direction. We are hopeful the study will conclude that state-of-the-art testing of the blood supply, combined with an individual risk assessment, will support a change to the blood donor deferral policy so that gay and bisexual men can be considered potential donors. This will also increase the pool of eligible blood donors and help communities far and wide.”
Wrote the Members, “We applaud the FDA’s decision to launch a pilot study that will utilize an individual blood donation questionnaire to assess risk factors that could indicate possible infection with a transfusion transmissible infection, including HIV.
“We appreciate that the FDA has been willing to engage in discussions specific to the MSM deferral policy and revise guidance following Pulse, which included modifying the blanket ban to 12-months and again to 3-months deferral periods. These are steps in the right direction, but ultimately reductions in the ban should not be tied specifically to sexual orientation or disaster-based supply issues. An individual’s personal risk profile, regardless of sexual orientation and based on scientific and technological progress, should guide the policy.”
Current FDA policy bans blood donors who are men who have had sex with other men within the last three months. In 1983 when the policy was put in place, it was in the form of a lifetime ban on gay men from donating. This was changed to a year-long deferral in 2015, and three months in 2020. In 1983, there was no way to screen blood for HIV. Today, however, all donated blood is screened, leaving this policy woefully out of date.
Last year, U.S. Reps. Val Demings (FL-10) and Mike Quigley (IL-5) introduced the Science in Blood Donation Act of 2020, legislation to require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to revise its Guidance on Reducing the Risk of Human Immunodeficiency Virus Transmission (HIV) by Blood and Blood Products based on an assessment of current testing accuracy and individual risk-based analysis, rather than categorization. It would also require the FDA to revise the donor questionnaire based on an individual risk assessment of sexual behaviors upon which all donors are evaluated equally, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.
In April, U.S. Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (NY-12), Adam B. Schiff (CA-28), Mike Quigley (IL-5), Barbara Lee (CA-13), and Ritchie Torres (NY-15) led their colleagues in introducing a resolution highlighting the urgent need for equitable, science-based blood donation policies in the United States.
The advancement of the ADVANCE Study is a voluntary move which puts them in compliance with the goals of the Science in Blood Donation Act. Prior to the study’s announcement in December, the FDA had resisted calls to utilize a scientifically based risk assessment. The Science in Blood Donation Act and the Members’ resolution were key steps that encouraged FDA to further reevaluate this outdated policy.
As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, researchers are recruiting men in Orlando, Miami, Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Orlando, the LGBTQ community center, The Center, is currently working to recruit participants for the study.
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