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Columbia Spectator Staff

Dear President Bollinger,

We are writing to you regarding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men (MSM) and defferal of women who have sex with MSM (WSMSM). As students who are affected by the ban and as advocates for human rights and justice at Columbia, we believe it is imperative that this issue be given more attention on campus.

On April 11, 2014, the Office of Government and Community Affairs sent an email to members of the Columbia community promoting a blood drive on campus. We are disappointed that this email did not include any information or discussion about the fact that MSM and some WSMSM are prohibited from participating in this blood drive. We understand that Columbia has previously made public statements on this issue, typically by including the following disclaimer in blood-drive emails: "Columbia University continues to work with its partner, the New York Blood Center, to lobby the FDA to amend its outdated policy against blood donations from men who have sex with men.  You can help in this effort by logging in to www.change.org/gaybloodban to sign the public petition."

Much has changed since 1983, when the FDA implemented the ban as a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Despite advancements in testing, such as reducing the window period of HIV tests to 12 days using RNA testing, and increased social awareness about sexual and reproductive health in the LGBT community, the FDA's lifetime ban on MSM is still in effect. This policy directly discriminates on the grounds of sexual orientation and ignores the recent advances made in adopting less discriminatory practices. The donation protocol and strong safety records of Japanese and Australian blood banks offer examples of policy that prioritize safety and are less discriminatory.

[Related: An institutionalized prejudice]

Attention to this issue is by no means new. While many blood donors are unaware of the FDA's ban, there are a number of national organizations and activist groups calling for it to be lifted: Groups such as Change.org and Banned4Life regularly circulate petitions and PSAs to promote a fair donation policy. Members of Congress and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are also examining the criteria for blood donations. Researchers continue to explore the correlation between homosexuality and HIV infections.

Blood drives leave MSM and WSMSM with few options: to refrain from donating (as they currently are instructed), to donate and lie about their sexual history (which defies the notion of "coming out"), or to call for the ban to be removed. Columbia must take a more active role in supporting the third and most productive option. As an institution of higher education that aims to train many of society's current and future leaders, it is crucial that Columbia promote awareness of the FDA ban and work to overturn it. The University should demonstrate its commitment to diversity and human rights by incorporating these principles into campus communications and activities.

In addition to reinstating the brief disclaimer that is included in most of the University's blood-drive emails, we call on the administration to take the following actions: Send a University-wide email that specifically addresses and explains the FDA ban; organize forums about the ban with students, faculty, and staff to educate and mobilize members of the community outside of the LGBT groups; and inform each blood donor of the FDA ban at the time of donation and provide resources for donors to sign the Change.org petition or join other policy advocacy activities.

To be clear, we are not advocating for a boycott of the blood drive. Blood donations save lives, and all eligible members of the Columbia community should participate in drives on and off campus. It is precisely because donating blood is important that we are making our case. Not only is the ban discriminatory, it also bars willing donors from making a valuable contribution to those in need of transfusions.

The New York Blood Center says on its website that a single pint of donated blood can save up to three lives. Given that Columbia University has at least 13 LGBTQ associations, and it is a safe assumption that many members of these organizations are MSM or WSMSM, undoing this ban at Columbia alone could save hundreds. When you consider the number of MSM and WSMSM individuals nationwide, the current restrictions are easily seen as utterly unconscionable.

The current ban is unnecessary, discriminatory, and harmful to sick people in need of blood products. We therefore call on Columbia to implement the recommendations outlined in this letter promptly and to demonstrate leadership in the University community in accordance with its commitment to diversity and human rights.

Sincerely, 
SIPA Spectrum, School of International and Public Affairs
Columbia Outlaws, Columbia Law School
Queer Health Task Force, Mailman School of Public Health
Lambda Health Alliance, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
Cluster Q, Columbia Business School 
Columbia Queer Business Society, Columbia University 

The authors are School of International and Public Affairs  first-year candidates in the master's program in public administration. This op-ed is written on behalf of the groups listed above.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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