Imagine losing your son to suicide. Then, taking solace in the knowledge that at least his organs would be able to help other people live their lives, finding that your son’s eyes were rejected for transplant solely because he was gay.
Alexander Betts Jr. was 16 when he attempted suicide in July of 2013. He’d been outed as gay at school and tormented by his classmates for his sexuality, his mixed-race heritage and his cleft lip, all of which is all believed to have contributed to his suicide attempt. That act left Betts in a serious condition in the hospital, and not long after, he unfortunately died.
In the weeks before his death Betts had signed up to be an organ donor, and his mother Sheryl Moore made the difficult but admirable decision to keep her son’s body alive for four days after brain death so as to ensure that his organs would be viable for transplant. There’s one thing she didn’t bargain on, however, and that is the FDA’s anti-gay donation policy.
The FDA’s donation guidelines specifically rule out certain tissue donations if a man has had sex with another man in the past five years, saying that this “behavior” is a risk factor for Hepatitis B and HIV.
Specifically, while Betts could donate his heart, lungs and kidneys, his corneas were rejected because he was believed to be gay and had an unknown sexual history.
When Betts’ mother noticed that her son’s corneas hadn’t been donated due to the FDA’s rules, she was very upset. She is quoted as saying: “My initial feeling was just very angry because I couldn’t understand why my 16-year-old son’s eyes couldn’t be donated just because he was gay.” Moore is also aware that her son would have been banned for life from donating blood because of his sexuality. “This is archaic, and it is just silly that people wouldn’t get the life-saving assistance they need because of regulations that are 30 years old.”
The FDA maintains that the donation policy is sound based on the elevated HIV risk that gay men face. For instance, about 50 percent of all people living with HIV in the United States are gay men, yet they only make up about 4 percent of the population, with over half of all new infections occurring among MSM.
We’ve previously discussed the compartmentalizing that goes into banning men who have sex with men from donating blood while failing to inquire into the sexual histories of heterosexuals who may be far more promiscuous than your average gay man. However, the tissue donation ban is uniquely suspect because in those very same regulations it says the following is also banned:
1. Persons who have had sex in the preceding 12 months with any person described in criteria 1 through 4 of this section or with any person who has HIV infection, including a positive or reactive test for HIV virus (Refs. 17 and 18), hepatitis B infection (Ref. 64), or clinically active (symptomatic) hepatitis C infection (Refs. 65 and 66).
2. Persons who have been exposed in the preceding 12 months to known or suspected HIV, HBV, and/or HCV-infected blood through percutaneous inoculation (e.g., needle stick) or through contact with an open wound, non-intact skin, or mucous membrane (Refs. 18 and 64).
With these provisions in mind, it is impossible for the FDA to claim that the five year deferral on MSM donating tissue is solely to guard against HIV/Hepatitis transmission when in the very same set of regulations it basically allows heterosexuals who have definitely had sex with someone who is HIV positive to have only a 12 month deferral period.
That means a man who sleeps with an HIV-positive woman, for instance, would only be banned for a year. To extend that further, a man who has slept with many HIV-positive women without taking precautions, would still only be banned for a year.
The extra four years on the deferral then is solely for gay and bisexual men, thus suggesting that this “behavior,” as the FDA calls it, is of itself a health risk akin to intravenous drug use — which is not supported by medical science.
Moore, who is a CEO of three firms that oversee indexed annuities for the insurance sector, now says she plans to add her voice to a growing body of activists, medical experts and politicians who are all calling on the FDA to revise the bans on MSM donation.
In the meantime, Moore has found some comfort in the fact that she’s been able to trace where her son’s organs have gone, including that his heart now belongs to sport-loving 14-year-old boy who is doing well after the transplant surgery.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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