WASHINGTON -- Massachusetts lawmakers are pushing the federal government to overturn a ban on blood donations from gay men, saying the policy adopted in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is outdated and discriminatory.
A federal advisory panel began hearings today that could result in the repeal of the ban, the first time the longstanding policy has been reviewed under the Obama administration.
The lifetime ban was enacted in 1983 before AIDS was widely understood and has long infuriated gay rights groups since it applies to all gay men regardless of their HIV status. Heterosexuals who engage in risky behavior, like having sex with prostitutes or HIV-positive partners, are only banned from giving blood for a year.
"The lifetime ban on gay and bisexual blood donors, unsupported by today's scientific understanding of HIV, unnecessarily stigmatizes gay and bisexual men and turns away healthy potential donors that our nation needs," said Joe Solmonese, the president of Human Rights Campaign, in a statement.
The Red Cross, American Medical Association, and American Association of Blood Banks are also opposed to the ban, which they say prevents much-needed blood donations. Donated blood is now tested for HIV before it is used in transfusions.
Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, Representative Michael E. Capuano, Democrat of Somerville, and Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Newton -- along with 38 other lawmakers -- signed a letter this week urging the government to discard the policy.
"This is blood that could save lives," Kerry said in testimony on the first of two days of hearings by the committee at the Department of Health and Human Services that advises the department on blood donation policy.
The ban applies to any man who has had sex with another man since 1977. A study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimated that lifting the ban would result in between 70,000 and 219,000 pints of additional donations ever year.
Shelly Burgess, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration, said the ban was in place because HIV infection rates were much higher among gay men than the general population and HIV tests are not infallible.
"While today's highly sensitive tests fail to detect less than one in a million HIV infected donors, it is important to remember that in the US there are over 20 million transfusions of blood, red cell concentrates, plasma or platelets every year," she said in an email. "Therefore, even a failure rate of 1 in a million can be significant if there is an increased risk of undetected HIV in the blood donor population."
Under current rules, intravenous drug abusers, people who have received transplants of animal tissue, prostitutes, and people who have traveled to certain countries are also barred from giving blood because of higher prevalance of blood-borne diseases in those groups.
The ban on donations from gay men was upheld in 2007 after its last review. Burgess said that the Department of Health and Human Services would make a final determination on whether to change the rule after receiving the advisory committee's recommendation.
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.