In wake of gay marriage debate, UF student questions FDA blood donation policy

By on April 5th, 2013

By Ely Benhamo – WUFT contributor

Students of the University of Florida who are interested in donating blood and saving up to three lives are welcomed by two LIFESouth blood buses conveniently located on campus on a regular basis.

To James J. Sadler, a UF master’s student, the blood center buses on campuses throughout the country have not assisted his efforts to save a life, but rather, have complicated them.

“Every time I see the bloodmobile on campus and I’m with someone, I tell them my story,” Sadler said, as he recollected his previous experiences with donating blood as an  undergraduate at Illinois College.

When he was younger, Sadler was a member of  Alpha Phi Omega, a national service fraternity that held a blood drive at his school. Sadler was eager to donate blood for the first time and save lives as promised by the sponsoring blood bank.

Skimming through the health and safety questions that were irrelevant to him and bubbling “no” for what seemed an endless amount of time, Sadler paused at a specific question that pertained to a group of individuals which he is a part of – homosexuals.

Without putting much thought into it, Sadler bubbled “yes” to the question which read: “if since 1977, you, if male, have had sex with another man, even once.”

Sadler said he was then denied from donating blood because the nurse in charge of donations said he was “at high risk.” After persistently asking why he couldn’t donate his blood, he found out that it was because he had previously had sex with a man.

In the 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration enacted a ban preventing gay men who have had sex with another man even once since 1977 from donating blood due to the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Currently, the ban is still in effect and has stirred international conflict and confusion as a result.

A few years after Sadler’s first rejection from donating, a blood center by the name of Bonfils Blood Center in Denver, Colo., was hosting a blood drive. Sadler’s first instinct was to directly contact the organization and ask them if there was any way that he could donate blood. He was looking for a loophole.

“Well what if I lie about my status and say I never had sex with a man?” Sadler asked.

The response that followed was not foreseen by Sadler. Because he was considering lying about his status, a permanent deferral was issued in his record at the Bonfils Blood Center and all of the blood centers in America.

“What I felt was a sense of discrimination that wasn’t highly promoted was occurring with blood donations,” explained Sadler, who switched from concentrating his time on his pro-same sex marriage stance to efforts for the elimination of blood donations on campus entirely.

“For me it was a public awareness thing,” Sadler said. “Eliminate blood donations on campus and explain it’s because the American Red Cross discriminates.”

Sadler’s efforts to remove blood donations from Illinois College faced much criticism. He explained how most of the people on that small, liberal campus were more concerned about the ability of people in need to receive some blood rather than there being a complete shortage.

Currently in the United States there is a decline in national blood donations. Over 50,000 gay men are being turned away from donation centers, according to CNN’s website.

“Would I feel sad if my mother couldn’t get a blood transfusion? Of course I would, but that doesn’t mean that it should be assumed that all gay men are infected with HIV/AIDS,” Sadler said.

The FDA ban is listed under all national blood center guidelines, prohibiting all gay men who have had even one sexual encounter with another man from donating blood under the assumption that they are at high risk of spreading HIV/AIDS. This is seen as a major form of discrimination by members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning community across America.

“Any time anybody donates, that blood is tested for HIV and other diseases,” said Gary Kirkland, LIFESouth media specialist. “Occasionally we come across a positive … These are coming from people who answered ‘no’ to that question.”

Kirkland also mentioned that various organizations like the AABB, formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks, of which LIFESouth is a member, have asked for the ban to be removed. “But until then, there is not much we can do about it,” he said.

For other students at UF, when it comes to donating blood, it is not about being fair.

Tara Scott, a material science engineering student, is a supporter of the LGBTQ community who believes that the ban exists to serve a good purpose.

“My uncle has HIV from unprotected sex with another man and had he not known and donated blood, it could help spread the disease,” Scott said. “That blood is tested for HIV and AIDS, but when people need blood, contracting an immune disease by accident such as HIV can be deadly.”

Kirkland explained there is a window of time between when a person is exposed to HIV/AIDS and starts experiencing symptoms. The window exceeds the shelf life of most donated blood, which even when screened for such viruses, may still contain the infection that won’t show up on a screening at its onset.

Scott too has hope that one day HIV/AIDS will no longer cause such a disturbance, but as of right now for Scott, HIV/AIDS is too severe a risk to patients in need of blood transfusions.

Today, less than 40 percent of Americans are eligible to donate blood for various reasons including traveling to certain places, piercings, age and tattoos. Out of the 40 percent of the population who are eligible, less than 5 percent actually donate. One in seven patients in the hospital is currently in need of blood, Kirkland explained.

“We have to follow the rules that the FDA sets down … [but] rules do change,” Kirkland said as he explained that within the next 90 days blood centers will remove the window of time a donor must wait to donate after getting a tattoo due to the increased regulation and testing of tattoo parlors.

For Sadler, like many in the LGBTQ community, hope for a removal of the ban remains. In the meantime, Sadler continues to spread awareness about the FDA ban in hopes that the members of the FDA will review the regulations and update them in a manner that satisfies opponents of the ban.

“The question of marriage equality will come and pass, and the next thing on our list will be trying to lift this ban,” Sadler said.

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