FDA Advises Sperm Banks on Gay Donors

Alix Spiegel reports on a new FDA policy that encourages sperm banks to avoid donations from men who have sexual relations with men. Many argue the recommendation is discriminatory, and based on bad science. Sperm banks began screening donors for HIV in the mid-80s, and there is no documented case of HIV transmission through donated sperm.

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Next week, the Food and Drug Administration will implement new regulations for tissue and cell donations. And the FDA is suggesting--suggesting--that US sperm banks should not allow anonymous sperm donation from any man who's had sex with another man in the last five years. There are complaints these new recommendations are anti-gay. Alix Spiegel reports.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

The Food and Drug Administration first began to look at the issue of sperm bank regulation in the early 1990s. And when it sat down to consider how to manage the industry, it decided to view sperm in the same way that it viewed other human tissues, like blood or bone marrow or organs for transplant. The idea with these tissues is to limit the pool of candidates to people who are at low risk for infectious disease, which is why in these cases the FDA turns to broad population statistics.

Mr. MATTHEW KUEHNERT (Assistant Director of Blood Safety, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): What we look at is what is the epidemiologic risk associated with infections.

SPIEGEL: This is Matthew Kuehnert, assistant director of blood safety at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The FDA declined to comment on its new policy, and the CDC is one of the organizations which provides data and guidance to the FDA. Kuehnert points out that in terms of population, homosexual men are clearly at a greater risk of HIV infection.

Mr. KUEHNERT: Men who have sex with men are significantly more likely to be infected than compared with the general population.

SPIEGEL: But gay rights activists and others in the sperm bank industry question whether this broad epidemiological truth continues to be relevant in the case of sperm donation. Alice Ruby, a spokeswoman for the Sperm Bank of California, one of the largest sperm banks in America, says it is not.

Ms. ALICE RUBY (Spokeswoman, Sperm Bank of California): It is not fully looking at the fact that there are things about sperm that make it different than other types of tissue.

SPIEGEL: Ruby points out that unlike, for example, the human heart, sperm can be frozen for a long period of time before it's used, and that American sperm banks routinely freeze donations for a minimum of six months before insemination. During those six months, banks test and retest their donors, not only for HIV, but for a whole host of diseases, a practice, she says, which drops the risk of HIV infection near zero.

Ms. RUBY: Because we have this ability to test, quarantine and retest, we have a higher level of safety, and we are able to screen based on risk behavior not necessarily just on population.

SPIEGEL: An example of risk behavior would include unprotected sex with multiple partners regardless of sexual orientation. And these are the kind of factors, not membership in a particular group, that should be considered when assessing risk, at least according to gay right activist John Givner of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund.

Mr. JOHN GIVNER (Lamda Legal Defense Fund): Screening members of groups in these very broad ways isn't scientifically valid; it's simply playing into stereotypes.

SPIEGEL: After all, Givner points out, gay men are not the only group in America with elevated risk.

Mr. GIVNER: People who are living below the poverty line, people of certain races, people who have spent time in prisons or other correctional facilities.

SPIEGEL: It's noteworthy that these other groups haven't been singled out by the FDA.

Whether or not the FDA should exclude anonymous gay donors, the new FDA recommendations already seem to be having some impact. This past weekend, Leland Traiman, director of the Rainbow Flag Sperm Bank in Alameda, California, a bank that actively recruits gay sperm donors, says he got a call from one of his clients, a woman who was supposed to ovulate during the coming week.

Mr. LELAND TRAIMAN (Director, Rainbow Flag Sperm Bank): She said that I should ship sperm to her this week, but that her doctor told her that because of the new FDA regulations going into effect after May 25th, he could not longer do inseminations for her.

SPIEGEL: The reason, her doctor explained, was that Rainbow Flag used gay sperm donors and gay sperm donors, according to the FDA, were not safe. This infuriated Traiman, who has used homosexual donors, without incident, for over a decade. But though Traiman sees the effect of this policy as discriminatory, he and others in the industry say they think of it primarily as an effort by the FDA to make tissue regulations uniform. It's not bad politics, they say, just bad science. For NPR News, I'm Alix Spiegel in Washington.

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