Sex & Gender

A Jewish Response to Gay Male Blood Donation Bans

In elementary school, we are introduced to a few basic societal rules. We learn to say please and thank you, to share our toys, and, hopefully, not to pick our nose. We also learn a couple basic moral truths. Hurting other people is bad. Helping other people who need it is important.
We may even be introduced to the idea that helping people in a certain way — through saving their life — is the single greatest act we can do for another person.
[pullquote] That that is the case should not surprise us, but it certainly should disappoint and outrage us.
[/pullquote]I certainly was taught that crucial concept, and I took the idea to heart. It’s that reason that, on a regular basis, I head to the closest blood center and donate blood.
I take this responsibility very seriously. But lately, as I have returned to the blood center, I have felt increasingly agitated. The reason is that, despite the fact that we all learned as 1st or 2nd graders that saving a life is perhaps the greatest act any human can commit, an entire sub-section of our population is barred from doing so. All gay men (or other men who have sex with men) are banned from donating blood, if they have had sex with another man in the past year.
The reason that the FDA provides for this ban is that, due to the AIDS epidemic, gay male blood donors are at a higher risk of having blood that would cause harm than are their heterosexual counterparts. The first issue with that argument is that HIV can be detected in blood as early as 9 days after contracting it, and all donated blood is (of course) tested before transfusion. The second is that AIDS occurs in heterosexual men and in women as well as in homosexual men, yet there is no policy forbidding those groups from blood donations.
In other words, this ban discriminates against gay men and other men who have sex with men, and perhaps even more importantly, against those whose lives could be saved by their blood. Both because it eliminates the possibility for many people to do the incredible mitzvah of saving a life and because it contributes to major blood shortages for individuals whose lives literally depend on donated blood. 
[pullquote align=right] The question we must ask, then, is what do we do about it? [/pullquote] Some have proposed that we who are eligible refuse to donate until the policy changes. To me, this is terribly misguided and dangerous. While there may be a significant long-term goal in mind, I cannot agree to risk lives in the short-term in order to create the necessary pressure for a policy shift. Others believe that we have already reached a compromise. The ban used to be for an entire lifetime, so that any men who have had sex with another man even once would be banned not for just for a year, but forever. Last December, that changed, and the current policy of a one-year ban was put into place. While this may be a significant improvement, the reality is that an incredibly high percentage of gay men have had sex with a man in the past year, and their reality has not shifted one iota.
I can’t say I have the secret to changing this horrible policy, but I have an idea for us in the Jewish community. A way for us to take vital steps towards progress using the tools given us by the Jewish tradition.
Blood has played an important role in our collective past. In Exodus, the very first plague that God brings upon the Egyptians is dam (blood), and in Deuteronomy, we are barred from consuming the blood of animals – even Kosher ones. In Leviticus, we are famously commanded not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor – dam rei-echa.
Blood has played a key role in our history, and we should make sure it is playing a productive role in our present and future.
So here’s my thought. Dam, in the Hebrew number system, adds up to 44 (dalet is 4, and mem is 40). In a few weeks, our counting of the omer will reach day 44 (on May 18th, 2015). I’m propose that this year on that date we observe Dam B’Omer. We will utilize this day both to give blood if we are eligible and, the very same day, organize protests at these blood centers against the FDA’s discriminatory blood ban, which perpetuates hatred and endangers lives.
Not all of us are positioned well-enough financially to give sizable monetary donations to organizations we support. But all of us have blood flowing through our veins. Let’s fight for a world where all people, no matter what their sexual orientation is, can use it to help others.

8 thoughts on “A Jewish Response to Gay Male Blood Donation Bans

  1. The FDA is charged with making sure that blood is safe for transfusion as it is considered a drug. When the FDA makes a guidance about something, it is based on statistical analysis. In recent years, the FDA decided that “mad cow disease” is a statistical risk to blood recipients and banned for life anyone who spent five years or more in Europe. Many retired military donors have been deferred for life as a result.
    You may say “there is no test for mad cow but there is for HIV.” You mention that the test can detect the virus in 9 days. Can does not mean “does detect.” There are two tests done to detect both the RNA and the antibodies related to HIV. The window period still exists for viral load detection.
    The FDA has to balance a safe blood supply versus having enough donors. Right now, the transfusion rate has been dropping and blood supplies are adequate in most areas. The exception is always O- blood as it is transfused almost twice as much as it occurs in the population. It is the universal donor type. Anyone can use it.
    Blood donation is not a right. Blood donation is not a right. It is a responsibility. Only 37.5% of the population is medically eligible to give blood. I may wish to give plasma for transfusion but cannot because I am a woman. Women who have been pregnant carry antibodies that can sometimes trigger a serious transfusion reaction. Blood centers have the ability to test for those antibodies but it is costly so most opt to only draw transfusable plasma from male donors. Is this sex discrimination? No. It’s science.
    Let’s focus on the end user of blood. Patients often with compromised immune systems and who are often fighting for life. Let’s not turn this into an argument about discrimination.

  2. It’s also very important to note that the ban on “men who have sex with men” also catches trans women, an already marginalized population both within and without the “LGBT” world and the world in general, and in misgendering and misunderstanding us, perpetuates the harmful and hateful idea that we are really just “men in dresses”.

    1. Thanks for adding this! You are of course spot-on, and when speaking about this issue in the future I will make sure to include that clarifying point.

    2. They are the HIGHEST at risk group. Other people’s lives are more important than your feelings. Sorry.

  3. I’ve researched a lot into this issue, and about HIV and gay men, and there is no denying that gay men are the highest at risk group for contracting HIV. True any group can get it, but per capita, they are the highest group other than transgender woman. According to the CDC, gay men are 2% of the US population but 61% of all new HIV infections. that means the other people all account for 39% of all new HIV infections. It’s disproportionate. Also, it takes from about 2 weeks to up to 6 months for HIV to show up in blood testing. Someone very close to me had a HIV scare recently, and had two false positive tests, which is incredibly rare. THis person confided in me, that despite what he would prefer, most gay men refuse to use condoms. There’s a new drug coming out called Truvada that helps reduce HIV transmission, but the reality is that condoms are shunned, and even if truvada were to protect against HIV, since condoms are overwhelmingly not being used (according to all sorts of stories in gaystar news, huffington post too) that someone worse can come along, and will show up in the gay male community first due to the ease of transmission, then that would enter the blood supply. This is about safety, not hurt feelings or political correctness. Lesbians are probably the lowest at risk group, and if this were about discrimination, they would be denied the ability to donate too. It is about safety, and eliminating unecessary risk. If you want to donate blood, it’s likely because you want to help people. So why would you want to put people at further risk? I cannot donate blood because I’m on prostate medications that could cause birth defects in pregnant woman.

  4. The rational response is to not ‘get mad, get even.’ Private blood co-ops need to be established that accept donations from members of LGBT communities exclusively, and serve those communities exclusively as well. This neatly solves all of the current difficulties.
    This will assuage the resentment of those who advocate refusing to donate. The natural generosity and bond of shared feelings and experiences will guarantee a more than adequate supply of blood for the alternative communities. And while the paranoid fears of the straight communities’ institutions are surely unfounded, it is smarter to disengage from the fight and let them suffer without the bountiful contributions of the LGBT-ers.

  5. You ignore the reasons why gay men and transgender women are banned, is because they are BY FAR, the most at risk group. If you look at the CDC stats, MSM are 2% of the population but are 61% of all new HIV infections. I was watching CNN this week and they had a report on social media and increase in STDs. While they didn’t admit there’s a connection, they did put up a stat that said that HIV infections today are 30% higher than they were in the 1980s. Meaning the HIV epidemic you heard about in the 1980s? it is MUCH worse now. Also, it takes a anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months for HIV to show up in blood testing. If you add the two factors together, it means increasing the risk that recipients will be infected. It’s because of the risk, not due to hatred, otherwise lesbians would be banned, and lesbians are probably the lowest at risk group. This is about safety and people’s lives. People’s lives are more important than someone else’s hurt feelings and you are evil if you can’t understand why they woudl want to reduce the risk.

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