Thursday's news that British health officials will lift a lifetime ban on gay men donating blood is a significant step that the United States may soon follow, Sen. John Kerry, a leading proponent of ending the 28-year-old stateside ban, said Friday.
"I think this is likely the start of a trend globally that I'd rather we be leading than following," Massachusetts Democrat Kerry said in a statement to The Advocate. "This is a very close ally who sees the same information we do, and they've determined that gay donors pose no risk to the blood supply."
Following recommendations by an advisory committee on blood safety, the UK's Department of Health announced that men who have sex with men (MSM) who are HIV-negative and have not engaged in sexual activity within the past 12 months would be eligible to donate blood effective November 7. Great Britain joins countries such as Australia, Japan, and Sweden in implementing a one-year deferral for MSM donors.
"Our process is well under way here at home, and I think we'll see the United States end an outdated ban that no longer has the fig leaf of science or even question marks," Kerry said.
Senator Kerry and Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, have urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a subagency of the Department of Health and Human Services that regulates the nation's blood supply, to change its rules on MSM donors established in 1983. Current regulations bar men who have had sexual contact with other men since 1977 from donating, a policy that the American Red Cross and the nation's blood bank organizations consider to be scientifically unwarranted.
"The time has come for the FDA to modify the lifetime deferral for MSM to be consistent with sensible health and safety policy and with FDA deferral guidelines for high-risk heterosexual behavior," Kerry wrote in a 2010 letter, cosigned by 17 Senate colleagues, to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg. "We request that you initiate a review of the lifetime deferral requirement for men who have sex with men wishing to donate blood and that you reexamine the deferral criteria for all blood donors to ensure all high-risk behaviors are appropriately addressed."
But an HHS advisory committee voted last year against recommending that the MSM donation policy be changed, though committee members voted unanimously that the current restrictions are "suboptimal" and recommended further research into distinguishing between high- and low-risk donors, regardless of sexual orientation.
In a July Q&A document requested by Kerry and Quigley, the committee identified four areas of study needed to revisit the ban, including whether potential MSM donors would understand and comply with a deferral period and how donor risk factors relate to the risk of blood-transmissible diseases.
"While this document demonstrates HHS's continued commitment to doing this research and moving toward a better policy, it also indicates that funding limitations could hamper their progress," Human Rights Campaign chief legislative counsel Brian Moulton wrote in July. "HRC will continue to push the department to revise the current policy and urge Congress to provide the funding necessary to develop better, fairer blood donation criteria."
On Thursday, British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell praised the U.K. health department's policy change but called the 12-month deferral period "excessive and unjustified."
"Most gay and bisexual men do not have HIV and will never have HIV. If they always have safe sex with a condom, have only one partner and test HIV negative, their blood is safe to donate," Tatchell said in a statement. "They can and should be allowed to help save lives by becoming donors."