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.