HIV-Positive People Can Soon Donate Organs. Great News.

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Nov. 22 2013 11:37 AM

HIV-Positive People Can Soon Donate Organs. Great News.

A kidney after it was removed from a donor
A surgeon flushes a kidney after it was removed from a donor during a transplant.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/GettyImages

I’ve written extensively about how the bigotry, blind fear, and bad science of the early AIDS panic continues to stalk the American medical community. But the sad truth is that many doctors are simply following protocol: The systemic homophobia that leads to HIV criminalization and gay blood donation bans begins in legislatures and federal agencies, not hospitals and clinics.

So it’s extremely heartening to see an indication that our elected officials are beginning to wake up to the idiocy of HIV hysteria. The most encouraging sign yet came on Thursday, when President Barack Obama signed the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act, or HOPE Act, into law. The act is being celebrated as a lift of the ban on organ transplants between HIV-positive people, but actually it first does something far more basic: It lifts the ban on research regarding such organ transplants.

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That’s not a typo: Before the HOPE Act, it was illegal simply to study HIV-positive organ transplants. Now such research can finally commence, with standards set forth by the federal health department. And presuming the research leads to a safe and effective means of organ transplant between HIV-positive people—which it will—such transplants will begin within a few years.

As I said, there’s really no reason these transplants aren’t legal already. The exceedingly rare and relatively minor risk of HIV reinfection pales in comparison to the risk of dying from organ failure. Organ transplantation is highly regulated, and there’s simply no risk of an HIV-negative person accidentally receiving an HIV-positive organ. Lifting the ban will save hundreds of lives every year, increasing the pool of organs available and significantly reducing Medicare costs. For the health care community, it’s pure commonsense—which is why its most vocal Republican supporter is also a licensed physician.

The HOPE Act, in other words, is a great way to start the campaign to end absurd, politically inflicted medical biases against HIV-positive people. But it is only a start. From HIV criminalization to the gay blood donation ban, anti-gay bias still pervades the American medical community. When signing the bill, President Obama described it as “an important step in the right direction.” That’s undoubtedly true. But now the real test is whether he’s willing to take the next big step.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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