Every three months, the Red Cross Club of the Claremont Colleges and the three fraternities on Pomona’s campus work together to organize a blood drive. There are generally dozens of volunteers who come and roll up their sleeves, eager to partake in what many consider an important part of their civic identity.
Yet at each blood drive, a significant portion of the college population is prevented from donating blood.As any blood donor veteran will recall, before giving blood one is asked to fill out a form which includes a question asking, “Are you a male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977?” If you answer yes to this question, you are immediately denied the opportunity to give blood.
It does not matter if you know you’re not HIV-positive, if you practice safe sex, or if you are monogamous.As a female, the only question I am asked about my sexual life is whether or not I have been paid for sex or had sex with someone considered to be “high risk” by the FDA’s standards.I could have unprotected sex with multiple people and still walk in to donate blood without a single person questioning the safety of my donation until it is tested.
The FDA first imposed the men who have sex with men (MSM) blood ban in 1983. At the time, tests were not as accurate and the possibility of an HIV-positive blood donation getting through to blood recipients was a significant concern. Additionally, less was known about AIDS as a whole. To policy makers, the best way to ensure a safe blood supply appeared to be to simply remove the high-risk blood donations.
This policy was discriminatory in the 80s, and today it is even more problematic. Now we know how HIV is spread; we know that anyone who practices unsafe sex or other high-risk activities can contract HIV. Furthermore, all blood is now thoroughly tested before it is passed on to recipients. If an HIV-positive donor does give blood, that blood sample does not make it past screenings and is disposed of. All the ban does is prevent willing donors from giving back to their community.
Despite problems with this ban, it is still in place and the American Red Cross still must follow FDA regulations. The American Red Cross, along with America’s Blood Centers and the American Association of Blood Banks, opposes the indefinite ban.However, these organizations can only provide blood donations to hospitals if they follow FDA regulations.
The Red Cross Club of the Claremont Colleges does not support the ban, but we do support blood drives.As one of the presidents of the club, I personally feel that the ban is unnecessary and that it perpetuates false ideas about sexual practices. I support a policy that would rely entirely on the self-deferral process to protect the blood supply. Rather than asking one generalized question that excludes an entire group of donors, I believe questions should be more specific to a person’s sexual practices and the actual risk that they pose. How someone has sex is more important than with whom. Why is it that we do not ask, “Have you had unprotected sex with anyone in the last year?”
By only asking questions about men who engage in sex with other men and not about the sexual activities of any other donor, the donor form presents men who have sex with men as dangerous and everyone else as safe from disease.
While I feel strongly about the MSM ban, I also feel strongly about blood drives.The ban is a glaring flaw in the blood donor policy.I hope it will be changed soon, and I believe that in the coming years we will see gradual progress to a self-deferral process that does a better job of allowing healthy donors to contribute.However, blood drives still do enormous good and donating blood is a very worthy and necessary cause. I know some people oppose blood drives on principle, and I respect their commitment to seeing changes made for a more equitable system, but I don’t believe that these people are targeting the right audience.By giving blood, one helps to save the lives of people in need. Despite the problems within the system, this is still important.
Thus, while the Red Cross Club does not support the FDA’s ban, we do remain committed to providing blood drives for those who can participate. We hope that the student body will not misconstrue this as support for prejudiced policies.