Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Can I swab your cheek?"

The past few weeks have provided me with ample material on which to opine. I am going to reserve the conversation on the Obama administration’s decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) as well as the recent article by a lesbian at Stern for a later date.
Those readers affiliated with a Jewish organization will, I am sure, have at times come across a booth asking them for a donation for something that is seemingly odd: their saliva. “Gift of Life” is an organization that, in partnership with the National Bone Marrow Registry in the United States, seeks to catalogue the DNA of individuals across the country. This is done so that, when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness and in need of a bone marrow transplant, a simple computer search can be conducted to find a genetic match. Through my various roles as a Jewish activist I have asked perhaps hundreds of people to swab their cheeks for this cause.
I myself have never been swabbed.
What possible reason could I have for abstaining from partaking? The reason is simple: while I can easily swab my cheek and add my DNA to the database, there is a good chance that I would not be able to donate my marrow—in fact that it would be rejected—if it was needed. Let me share a story to provide some background.
As a college freshman, I eagerly spent my first Halloween in the secular world waiting in line . . . to donate my blood to the American Red Cross. Upon entered the donor waiting area I was given a medical history form to complete and a sheet with a list of candidates whose donation would be excluded. On the list of rejected donors, amongst drug users and “working girls,” was any male who has had sex with another male since 1977. I spoke with the administrators at the site and they determined that I could not donate blood. My social security no. was entered into the database of prohibited donors. I was warned that, should I try and enter a donation site and enter my personal information, I will be removed from the premises. Not a good experience. Side note: I am NOT conceding to having violated Halacha. I vehemently deny that allegation.
The Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) and the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) regulate blood and organ donation. To be frank, gay men are excluded from donating. This exclusion stems from the HIV/AIDS epidemic that first took the world by storm in the late 70s and early 80s. The fear of this disease has, rightfully so, altered health policies around the world. While the FDA, as far as I am aware, does not permit the donation of blood from any male meeting these criteria since 1977, the CDC’s regulation are slightly looser. The CDC prohibits donations from men who have had sex with men within 5 years of donating an organ. However, in life threatening situations when there are no other viable options, the donee may be made aware of the risks that would accompany the donation and select whether to accept the organ and the risks to which they may be exposed .
I have not swabbed my cheek because there might come a time when I will be a match and I will be forced to label myself as “high-risk” of transmitting HIV to an individual. I will either be rejected outright or an ill individual and his/her family will be forced to scrutinize me and decided if they want to risk accepting an infection that I would, G-d willing, not even have.  Side note: Donors are often anonymous, but I assume that, at the very least, the donee would be given my history and basic information to assist them in evaluating the risks.
The policies requiring this disclosure, while based in an understandable fear, are ill formed. The promiscuous stereotype applied to gay men, the foundation of these rules, may have some basis in fact, but it is no more true than the rampant promiscuity and exposure to HIV and other STDs that exists in the general heterosexual  community. Among the most common carriers of HIV/AIDS are black women. I am not advocating for their inclusion onto this list. I concede that some of the activities undertaken on the list do represent unwise choices that, if persistent, create a higher risk for disease. However, in this day and age, when an HIV test takes less than 20 minutes to process and is considered fool proof (granted, the testee must not have engaged in any of these activities within 3 months prior to the test), the continued enforcement of these regulations is ludicrous.
Were the policy to be altered so that blood samples/tests determined the risk of a donor’s exposure to HIV on an individual basis that disregards stereotypes, I would register with “Gift of Life.” Until that day comes, I refuse to place a family in the position of deciding whether to save a loved one’s life while “exposing” them to HIV. And I refuse to face rejection of my marrow (or other bodily organ) because of an outdated policy that promotes the view of my body as one large vial of disease.

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