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Congress Democrats Ready for Showdown with FDA Over Gay Blood Ban

Blood test
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More representatives join the call to end the celibacy requirement for gay and bisexual male blood donors after the tragic shooting in Orlando.

After the tragic shooting in Orlando, Congress has become more and more critical of a deferral policy that prevents gay and bisexual men from donating.

Reps. Jared Polis and Alan Grayson joined a media call Tuesday morning to speak out against the deferral by the Food and Drug Administration, highlighting both petitions and bills seeking to lift the donation restrictions.

"We need to base our policy on behavior and science, not sexual orientation," Polis, D-Colo., said. "The gender of one's partner has nothing to do with risky behavior."

The FDA requires men who have sex with men (MSM) to be celibate for 12 months before they can donate blood. This deferral replaced the outright ban on MSM blood donations that had been in place until December 2015.

Grayson, D-Fla., spoke about the confusion and heartbreak after the mass shooting on Pulse nightclub in Orlando as friends of survivors turned out to donate blood--only to realize they could not.

"We asked people that day give to blood," he said. "At one location, two blocks had to be cordoned off--that's how many people showed up. But then friends realized they couldn't donate for their friends because of who they loved. When some people can give blood and others can't, that's definitely a situation where we have second-class citizens."

An FDA spokeswoman told Out a few days after the Orlando shooting that the deferral policy was based on scientific evidence of the risks still inherent in modern blood testing.

"The FDA has examined the possibility of eliminating all deferrals for HIV and simply relying on testing of donated blood," she said, "however, scientific evidence has shown this would lead to decreased safety of the blood supply."

Grayson said he would introduce a bill once the House reconvenes that would provide grant money for blood banks to test directly for the virus, rather than the body's antibodies. He said that testing for antibodies is a cheaper alternative and leads to the slight delay--about nine days--when testing blood for donation.

"As a result of this tragedy, we learned that the system we use in testing blood needs to upgrade," he said. "Testing for the virus itself is readily available in the commercial market."

The FDA did not provide a response to Grayson's comments.

Other representatives have introduced similar bills to circumvent the deferral. Rep. Michael Honda proposed a bill before the recess that would allow the Human and Health Services secretary to relax blood donor screening rules "during times of national or local need."

"There's nothing inherently different about the blood of gay people," Polis concluded. "We need to base these decisions on behavior, not orientation."

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