If it's OK to reject blood from gay men, what about blacks?

Science, technology, and life.
June 21 2010 7:48 AM

Inferior Blood

If it's OK to reject blood from gay men, what about blacks?

(Continued from Page 1)

Sounds crazy, right? But we already exclude blood on the basis of African origin. In 1983, the FDA ruled out donations from anyone who had lived in Haiti after 1977. Then it extended this prohibition to sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the Red Cross informs prospective donors that under FDA rules, "Persons who were born in or lived in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Niger and Nigeria since 1977 cannot be blood donors."

This isn't racial animus. It's just blunt math, based on the increased risk of a particular HIV type in these populations. The FDA has a similarly coarse rule against blood from anyone who has spent half a year in the United Kingdom, based on the threat of mad-cow disease. The problem isn't racism; it's the crudity of treating individuals according to group membership. Where does it end? When the FDA barred Haitian blood, Haitian groups asked why black Americans, whose HIV rate was higher than that of Haitians, weren't similarly excluded. It was a good question, and it was never answered. (For an excellent analysis of similarities between the Haitian blood ban and the MSM blood ban, see Charlene Galarneau's article, "Blood Donation, Deferral, and Discrimination," in the American Journal of Bioethics.)

Advertisement

We don't have to keep going down this road. Instead of rejecting people based on group membership, we can assess them as individuals. It's fine to ask them about factors known to affect the risk of infection: travel, promiscuity, condom use, drug abuse, piercings, tattoos, whatever. But the evaluation of these factors has to be more nuanced than a categorical exclusion. And the surest measure of each individual's risk is a blood test. Even the FDA concedes that "today's highly sensitive tests fail to detect less than one in a million HIV-infected donors."

In its latest recommendations, posted Friday, the FDA's advisory committee on blood suggests further research and acknowledges that current screening policy is "suboptimal in permitting some potentially high risk donations while preventing some potentially low risk donations." But since it's unclear which "alternative policy" would be better, the panel recommends that the "indefinite deferral for men who have had sex with another man even one time since 1977 not be changed at the present time."

So the gay blood ban will continue. And that's OK, according to the American Plasma Users Coalition, whose testimony strongly influenced the FDA committee. "By their very nature, blood donor screening and deferral criteria are discriminatory; however, they are justifiable when they provide increased protection to public health," the coalition argues. "Criteria for donor deferrals must put safety of the recipient first and be based on scientific and epidemiological evidence about large groups of people."

That kind of group judgment was popular in the 19th century. It may have been necessary in the worst epidemics of the 20th. But in the 21st, we can do better.

Latest Twitter Updates
    Follow William Saletan on Twitter.

    Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. Human Nature's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

    TODAY IN SLATE

    Politics

    Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

    Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

    I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

    Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

    Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

    And schools are getting worried.

    Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

    The XX Factor

    Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

    So they added a little self-immolation.

    Medical Examiner

    The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

    The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

    Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

    How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

      News & Politics
    Weigel
    Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
      Business
    Business Insider
    Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
      Life
    Quora
    Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
      Double X
    The XX Factor
    Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
      Slate Plus
    Slate Picks
    Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
      Arts
    Brow Beat
    Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
      Technology
    Future Tense
    Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
      Health & Science
    Bad Astronomy
    Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
      Sports
    Sports Nut
    Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.