The Food and Drug Administration is relaxing a 32-year-old ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.
The FDA announced Monday that it was replacing a lifetime prohibition with a new policy that will allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood, but only if they have not had sexual contact with another man for at least one year.
"Relying on sound scientific evidence, we've taken great care to ensure the revised policy continues to protect our blood supply," said Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
In 1983, the FDA banned gay and bisexual men from ever being eligible to donate blood to protect people receiving blood transfusions from the possibility of getting infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.
But gay-rights advocates and many medical groups have been urging the FDA to lift the ban for years. They argue the policy is discriminatory because it singles out gay and bisexual men and that it is unnecessary because blood donors can be screened for HIV.
Others, however, have urged the FDA to keep the ban, saying that infected people can slip through the screening process. Blood tests remain negative for about nine days after a person has been infected with HIV.
After weighing the arguments, Marks announced the FDA is finalizing a policy change it proposed last year. The new policy brings the U.S. in line with other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Britain, Marks says. Research in Australia indicates the policy would not jeopardize the safety of the blood supply.
But this has not satisfied many advocates.
"It perpetuates the stigma that HIV is a gay disease," says Kelsey Louie, who heads Gay Men's Health Crisis, an advocacy group.
Gay or bisexual men in monogamous relationships may be at much lower risk as donors than, say, promiscuous heterosexuals, Louie said.
But others are praising the new policy as a reasonable compromise.
"The gay community and many people view blood donation as a civil right. And I don't think it is," says Dr. Kenrad Nelson, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who advised the FDA about the policy.
Nelson points out he can't donate blood for a year after he returns from countries where he might have gotten infected with malaria.
The FDA says it will monitor the new policy to see whether the restrictions could eventually be relaxed more.