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Bias as the Red Cross Blood Drive

Shantonu Sen

While walking down the Infinite Corridor last week, I started noticing all the posters for the Red Cross blood drive. I decided to swallow my cowardice and go donate my blood.

Everything was going fine until I read one of the questionnaires they gave me to fill out and sign. Not only did some of the questions seem a little personal, but some of them were also just flagrantly discriminatory. Among them: You must not donate blood if you [are a man who has] had sex even once with another male since 1977.

This qualification appears to penalize homosexuals who want to donate blood, even if they are completely healthy. With gay men making up a significant percentage of the population, the Red Cross is hurting itself by unnecessarily limiting the number of people who can donate.

The disturbing "logic" behind this requirement is the supposedly high rate of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among the homosexual community. However, the Red Cross is misinterpreting and misusing this data by employing homosexuality as a screening process against possibly infected blood.

As hard as it may be to believe, there are homosexuals who have no disease and who practice safe sex by using condoms, and their blood is perfectly good. The Red Cross could be tapping a greater pool of donors if they were willing to drop this completely senseless requirement. Since the form already includes separate questions which ask the donor whether he or she has any infectious disease, the issue of homosexuality should not be brought up as a roundabout way of asking about sexually transmitted diseases. "Homosexuality" is not synonymous with "disease-ridden."

Gender discrimination also seems to exist, as the questionnaire does not require females to answer the same question. Apparently, gay men automatically are at risk for STDs while lesbians are not. This dichotomy hardly seems fair, since HIV transmission can also be transmitted between females, albeit less frequently. The Red Cross should completely remove this "homosexuality clause," since it serves no definitive purpose other than haphazardly to exclude a sizable demographic of adults. Asking whether donors have any diseases is clearly a major concern, but it should depend on volunteers answering straightforward questions rather than ones which unnecessarily delve into their personal lives.

Although it's possible that a person may not know if they have a disease, this ignorance is as likely in heterosexuals as in gay men. Since the Red Cross verifies the questions by testing each sample for HIV and other STDs, sexuality should be a non-issue.

Although that issue was my main contention with the questionnaire, there are other such ungrounded generalizations in the form.

The Red Cross will not accept donations from people who have taken illegal or non-prescription drugs by needle, even once. This requirement is probably based on the statistic that drug users who share needles transmit diseases. However, the question does not even bother to differentiate between safe and unsafe drug use. With the advent of needle-exchange programs and awareness of the risk of transmission, this is another unnecessary limit. Many drug users use their own sterilized needles with little risk of exposure. Admittedly, a blood recipient wouldn't want to get a free "hit" of heroin, but this isn't a problem for donors who may have experimented with drugs many years ago (and have no drugs present in their bodies). But since there is no time qualifier, these people are not allowed to donate.

There is also a restriction against members of both sexes who have given or received money or drugs in exchange for sex. I would venture to say that prostitutes probably have the safest sex out of anyone in the general population, since it is part of their job to be safe there is no room to get caught up in the passion of the moment and end up having sex without protection. However, I can't say what proportion of prostitutes or their clientele consistently practice safe sex.

I believe the Red Cross needs to revise its blood donation policy. There should be no questions that ask about sexual orientation or behavior. The only questions that need be asked are ones that are immediately relevant to the issue of STDs. There will always be a few people who have unwittingly contracted a disease, but I purport that extra testing is a very small trade-off compared to the extra blood offered by a well thought-out and more equitable donation policy.