Democrats Urge FDA to Allow Gay and Bisexual Men to Donate Blood Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

A group of Democratic senators sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Thursday urging them to lift restrictions that prevent gay and bisexual men from donating blood in light of shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders joined 16 of his Democratic colleagues including Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in signing the letter, which was addressed to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

"We must take every possible step to secure our nation's blood supply in this critical time," the senators wrote. "And in order to do so, we need to shift away from antiquated and stigmatizing donation policies to ones that are scientifically sound, based on individual risk, and inclusive of all potential healthy blood donors."

Current regulations prohibit blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM) and have been sexually active within one year. A lifetime ban was lifted in 2015, after being put in place in 1983 in response to the AIDS epidemic.

A number of countries including the United Kingdom and Canada have shortened the MSM deferral period to three months, while others have eliminated the restrictions entirely.

The pandemic has placed a major strain on blood donations, with many blood drives being cancelled and potential donors staying home due to social distancing guidelines. The senators argued that lifting the restrictions is critical because accidents and conditions that require blood transfusions will continue to occur during the pandemic.

"For many individuals, including accident and trauma victims, organ transplant recipients and cancer patients, blood transfusions remain a necessary component of care," wrote the senators. "Unfortunately, our nation's blood supply has been severely constrained due to a decline in healthy donations."

Advocates for removing the current year-long deferment say it is based on outdated notions rather than current science, arguing that screening blood donors should be based on risks on a case-by-case basis and relying on stringent blood screening measures that are already in place.

"While many government health officials encourage every healthy individual to consider donating blood, the FDA continues to enforce a discriminatory donor deferral policy that effectively prohibits many healthy gay and bisexual men from doing so," the senators wrote.

The shortage has inspired other calls to lift the restrictions, with LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD launching a petition last week to halt the ban, which they called "absurd." The petition had gained a little more than 9,000 signatures as of Thursday night.

"FDA is aware there has been a dramatic reduction in blood and plasma donations around the country," an FDA spokesperson said in a statement to Newsweek. "The agency is working with the blood banking and source plasma industries to encourage healthy people who wish to help to donate blood. People who donate blood are like those people working in a critical infrastructure industry."

"At this time, FDA's recommendations regarding blood donor deferral for men who have sex with men have not changed, but we will continue [and] are actively considering to reevaluate the situation as the outbreak progresses," the statement continued.

Update 3/27, 10:25 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a statement from the FDA.

Blood donation
The FDA currently prohibits blood donations from any men who have had sex with another man within one year. Getty