Blood Donation Rules Roil California Campuses Since the early days of the AIDS crisis, federal policy has banned gay men from giving blood. Gay activists say the policy is outdated, discriminatory and needs to be stopped. Campuses in Northern California are taking two very different tacks to wage their protests.
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Blood Donation Rules Roil California Campuses

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Blood Donation Rules Roil California Campuses

Blood Donation Rules Roil California Campuses

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Since the early days of AIDS crisis, federal policy has banned gay men from giving blood. The rule was meant to prevent the spread of HIV, but gay activists say it's outdated and discriminatory. In response, campuses in Northern California are waging two very different protests.

For member station KQED, Sarah Varney reports.

SARAH VARNEY: Sonoma State University Professor Rick Luttmann stands before a class had seemingly befuddled math students.

Professor RICK LUTTMANN (Sonoma State University): In this problem, you're picking five numbers.

VARNEY: At 68 years old, dressed in a faded purple shirt and mismatched pants, Luttmann seems an unlikely target for threatening late night phone calls.

Prof. LUTTMANN: One guy called up and just screamed into the phone: No contaminated blood!

VARNEY: Luttmann has become a reviled celebrity of sorts in the small town of Rohnert Park. The Sonoma State faculty there recently approved his resolution to ban campus blood drives. The university's president overrode that decision, but that idea has caught on among gay activists who say the blood banks are violating campus anti-discrimination policies. Luttmann got the idea earlier this year after San Jose State University and two nearby community colleges passed their own bans.

Prof. LUTTMANN: They'll argue that we don't ask the G word, that, you know, are you gay? They don't ask that. A young person, for instance, might never have had sex. But, basically, it's going to sweep in virtually all gay men.

VARNEY: Blood banks around California say they're worried more campuses will ban blood drives. Cathy Bryan heads of blood collections for three counties in Northern California. She said colleges are reliable and critical contributors to area blood supplies.

Mr. CATHY BRYAN (Works with Blood Collection, Northern California): Without the college and their frequent drives, we would have difficulty providing to our patients.

VARNEY: The blood banks and the Red Cross are lobbying the FDA to change the lifetime ban on gay men. Other high-risk groups like heterosexuals who've paid for sex can donate after waiting 12 months, and the blood banks and activists like Luttmann argue the same rule should apply to gay men. The FDA, in a written statement, said men who have sex with men still have the highest risk for HIV, and allowing them to donate would increase the likelihood and infection. Glenn Mones with the National Hemophilia Foundation - a group that was devastated by tainted blood in the 1980's - agrees.

Mr. GLENN MONES (National Hemophilia Foundation): Does it go beyond what would possibly be necessary? It might. But that's not the point. Why do we need to do that experiment and find out we were wrong?

VARNEY: That better safe than sorry logic doesn't hold up, says David Magnus, director of Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics. Magnus says screening tests can detect HIV in donated blood within days of an infection, and are virtually full proof.

Professor DAVID MAGNUS (Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University): We can have policies and testing that make it safe and effective for gay men to donate blood. And, therefore, excluding them when the level of risk is comparable to many, many other groups, seems simply discriminatory.

VARNEY: On the UC Berkeley campus, recent graduate Jeff Monticero(ph) is equally frustrated by the policy, but he believes banning blood drives is not the answer. Instead, he's organizing gay men on campus to find others to donate blood in their name.

Mr. JEFF MONTICERO: It's sort of like, you know, during Christmas or Hanukah time when people will go and pick a child's name and get them a gift. We have folks come to the table and choose someone's name to give in their name.

VARNEY: It's a form of protest, Monticero says, that educates people about the FDA's policy that doesn't jeopardize the local blood supply. Sonoma State Professor Luttmann admires Monticero's efforts, but says activists need to force the FDA's hand.

Prof. LUTTMANN: We don't control the nation. We're not Congress. But we can control what happens on our campus.

VARNEY: Even if the FDA adopts the rule supported by Luttmann and the blood banks, only gay men who haven't had sex for 12 months could donate. That would mean sexually active gay men - even those in monogamous relationships - could still not give blood.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.

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