FDA eases restrictions on blood donations from gay men

Toby Talbot/AP

Federal health officials are lifting the nation's 32-year-old lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, but major restrictions will remain on who can donate.

The Food and Drug Administration is replacing the blanket ban with a policy barring donations from men who have had sex with another man in the previous year.  It first indicated that it would make that change one year ago.

At that time, then-Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the FDA had reached its conclusion after it had "carefully examined and considered" the results of several recent scientific studies and epidemiological data. The agency also took into account the recommendations of advisory committees to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA, she said.

In announcing the revised policy on Monday, the FDA said the new approach is "backed by sound science and continues to protect our blood supply."

Gay rights activists, who had been pushing the FDA to end the ban, said the new policy does not go far enough.

The change is "a step in the right direction," said David Stacy, government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay rights group. But "it still falls far short of a fully acceptable solution because it continues to stigmatize gay and bisexual men," he added in a statement.  "It simply cannot be justified in light of current scientific research and updated blood screening technology."

The new policy "prevents men from donating life-saving blood based solely on their sexual orientation rather than actual risk to the blood supply," he said. 

The U.S. one-year waiting period matches the policies of other countries, including Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom.

The FDA first banned men who have sex with men from donating blood in 1983, because gay and bisexual men are at highest risk for HIV infection, and at the time there was no reliable way to test blood for the virus. In the 30 years since, tests became highly accurate, sparking a push among gay activists, politicians, and the medical establishment to get the FDA to change its policy. 

This story has been updated.