From CNN's Ben Tinker
NEW YORK – Montclair State University junior Dustin Weinstein recalls the excitement leading up to his first blood drive.
"I had never been to donate blood before," he says, "and I actually believe it was a friend of mine who told me they were going to be on campus."
But then came the lengthy screening questionnaire, and his hopes of helping others in need were dashed.
"The question said, 'Are you a male who's had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977?'" he recalls. "I said yes, and sure enough, they came back to me with a pink slip that said 'You're being chosen to be deferred.'"
Weinstein didn't realize that a more than two-decade old FDA policy bars him and millions of other men – who admit to same-sex contact – from giving blood.
AIDS activist Phil Wilson calls the policy outdated. "I think in 1985, there's a lot we didn't know about HIV. There's a lot we didn't know about prevention. There's a lot we didn't know about treatment. But now we know a lot more."
Wilson is not alone. The American Association of Blood Banks has tried to get the FDA to loosen the restriction. They're not only running low on blood; donations are steadily declining as the need for healthy blood continues to rise.
Weinstein says he's HIV-negative and the FDA should take that into account, rather than his sexuality. "The fact that HIV came in as the 'gay disease,'" he says. "I think that stigma really sticks with people. They figure they can just block it all out that way."
The FDA says their primary concern is safeguarding the 4.5 million people who receive blood transfusions every year in the U.S. and Canada. In a written statement to CNN, FDA spokeswoman Peper Long writes:
"THE FDA'S DEFERRAL POLICIES ARE BASED ON SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE CONCERNING INFECTION RATES FOR AGENTS SUCH AS HIV THAT ARE ASSOCIATED WITH CERTAIN SOCIAL BEHAVIORS."
If they allowed men who have sex with other men to donate blood, the risk of HIV would be 60 times greater, they say. But Wilson says that policy is discriminatory and not scientific.
"There's nothing inherently risky about being a gay or bisexual man," he asserts. "A gay or bisexual man who never has unprotected sexual contact is far less risky than a heterosexual man who has unprotected sex with a woman, flat out."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heterosexual HIV rates are rising, especially among African-American women. But neither heterosexuals nor Black women are barred from giving blood.
"I don't think it'd be allowed," says Weinstein. "There'd be a huge public outcry."
Wilson agrees. "We should educate people about their risk, and if you're engaged in a risky behavior," he says, "then we should educate people to refrain from giving blood because they're engaged in a risky behavior."
The FDA, for their part, says they regularly reevaluate the policy and would change it only if supported by scientific data showing that a change would not present a significant and preventable risk to blood recipients. Data, the agency says, has not yet been provided that shows blood donated by men who have sex with other men is as safe as blood from currently-accepted donors.