(CNSNews.com) – Conservatives say the Obama administration's decision to review the government policy barring homosexual men from donating blood was prompted more by lobbying from liberal Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) than by science.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said it will conduct an “evidence-based evaluation” of the lifetime ban on "men who have sex with men" or MSM."
Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, said the big question is why the government would even consider a change.
“Why are we even talking about opening up the blood supply when we knew there was a health risk in the first place?” LaBarbera asked.
LaBarbera told CNSNews.com that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – the agency in HHS which regulates the nation’s blood supply -- has barred homosexual men from donating blood since 1983 because the prevalence of HIV is 60 times higher among gay men than in the general population.
But LaBarbera said Kerry, a powerful member of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, has spent much of the last year writing letters and op-eds calling for an end to what the senator calls an “antiquated and discriminatory policy.”
“Obviously, this is politically driven,” LaBarbera said. “Kerry sees this as a discrimination issue, but the overwhelming majority, well over 90 percent of Americans, I hope would see this as a question of public health and preserving the purity of the blood supply.”
Kerry, in a statement released last week, said the “evidence-based evaluation” is itself evidence that HHS is going to take action to rescind the ban that prohibits “men who have sex with men (MSM)” – from donating blood.
“We’ve been working on this a long time in a serious way, and I’m glad (HHS) Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius responded with concrete steps to finally remove this policy from the books,” Kerry said in the statement. “HHS is doing their due-diligence and we plan to stay focused on the end game – a safe blood supply and an end to this discriminatory ban.”
But Darin Miller, a spokesman for the Family Research Council, said Kerry may be jumping the gun. HHS is merely promising to review certain aspects of the policy, he said.
"It appears to me that Senator Kerry has misunderstood the review of blood donation policies that is currently being conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services,” Miller told CNSNews.com.
“HHS is studying whether the current policy of excluding all men who have had sex with other men since 1977 as blood donors can be replaced with an alternative policy that will be equally effective at protecting the blood supply,” Miller said. “It is by no means clear that this study will arrive at an affirmative answer to that question, so Sen. Kerry is mistaken to refer to this process as constituting ‘concrete steps to finally remove this policy from the books.’ ”
According to the FDA, the review of automatic deferral of MSM began in June of 2010, after the FDA Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability Services voted 9 to 6 to retain the current policy, which was enacted in the late ‘80s to reduce the risk of HIV transmission in the nation’s blood supply.
However, LaBarbera and Miller point out that it was only after Kerry and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) testified before the committee in favor of removing the ban that the committee unanimously approved a finding that the current policy was “suboptimal in permitting some potentially high risk donations while preventing some low risk donations.”
HHS says the current review revolves around determining the root cause of the accidental release of “uncleared” blood; it will also probe whether homosexual men would be truthful in complying with modified donation deferral questionnaires and determine if alternative screening techniques are enough to ensure safe blood collection while allowing the subset of MSM who might safely donate to do so.
On its Web site, the FDA says that despite improvements in blood screening technology, with roughly 20 million blood transfusions performed annually in the United States, the high risk of HIV contraction among gay men and the possibility of medical error in testing, the most effective donation screening involves deferring gay men.
The FDA also says that studies confirm that a small but real number of blood transfusions mistakenly cleared as disease-free (roughly one in a million transfusions) have found their way into the blood supply. The regulator agency cites a “window period” in between infection and the ability to detect HIV antibodies. With homosexual men already at a much higher risk of contraction and transmission of the AIDS virus, the risk of donation of contaminated blood is highest for them during this window period.
Homosexual men are the largest group of donors to be found HIV positive in post-donation screening and also have a higher likelihood of carrying other blood-borne illnesses, including Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and Human Herpes 8, which causes the connective tissue cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma in people whose immune systems have been compromised.
“No alternate set of donor eligibility criteria (even including practice of safe sex or a low number of lifetime partners) has yet been found to reliably identify [MSM] who are not at increased risk for HIV or certain other transfusion transmissible infections,” the FDA stated on its Web site.
Sen. Kerry did not return phone calls or e-mails from CNSNews.com seeking comment.
Homosexual activists, meanwhile, were more restrained than Kerry in their assessment of the HHS review. Nathan Schaefer, director of public policy at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, said in a statement only that he was pleased that “the federal government has taken critical steps to review outdated blood donation policies.”