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Students press to end ban on gay male blood donors

College activists take plea directly to the Red Cross

WASHINGTON -- For more than a decade, gay rights advocates have protested about a federal policy that forbids blood donation by men who have had sex with men.

They say that the policy, originally intended to keep HIV- positive blood from entering the nation's blood supply, implies that gay men are inherently sick and that it prevents healthy people from donating.

Occasional protests and talks with the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees blood banks, have brought no change.

Now, some college students have taken up the cause, and they are taking a new tack. Instead of pressuring the FDA directly, they are targeting the American Red Cross, which is the largest and highest-profile blood collector in the United States.

Unlike America's Blood Centers, which represents the non-Red Cross blood banks that collect most of the nation's blood, the Red Cross publicly supports the policy. Activists say that if they can get the Red Cross to change its stance, the FDA will follow.

While many gay rights advocates have treated the blood ban as a low priority, college groups contend that the policy is outdated, ineffective, and homophobic.

All blood is tested before use, they say, and enforcement of the policy depends on the unchecked answers that potential donors give on a routine questionnaire. Most important, the activists say, the danger of HIV contamination comes from people who practice unsafe sex -- regardless of the donor's sexual orientation.

The new round of protests occurred this spring at several large Eastern universities, including the University of Maine at Orono, where the student government banned the Red Cross from conducting blood drives on campus. It opened the campus only to a blood collection company that supported changing the FDA rule.

The disputed policy dates to 1990, when the FDA codified a rule banning blood donations from any man who had had sex with another man since 1977. The policy started as a guideline in 1983, before blood could be tested for HIV. It has remained in place, officials say, because of concern over HIV infection among men who have had sex with men.

The FDA says allowing men in that category to donate would bring so much HIV-positive blood into the system that even rare errors could allow infected blood to slip through safeguards. Fourteen million units of blood are donated and processed in the United States every year.

San Francisco city officials and students at several campuses around the West Coast have protested the rules before.

A senior executive at the Red Cross said it had no control over the ban on blood donations by sexually active gay men. ''It's an FDA policy," chief medical officer Jerry Squires said at the organization's headquarters in Washington, D.C. ''I'm trying to say as clearly as I can that we're not the experts."

At an FDA hearing in 2000, the last time the agency reviewed its policy, the Red Cross testified in favor of keeping what the industry calls a ''lifetime deferral" for men who have had sex with men. The FDA's panel of specialists voted, 7 to 6, to maintain the ban.

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