San Jose State University Continues to Suspend All Blood Drives on Campus

Why? Apparently based on the view that the FDA’s ban on donation by men who have had sex with men since 1977 violates the school’s antidiscrimination policy.

Now I’m not sure whether the FDA policy is sound. Gay and bisexual males are apparently 44 times more likely to be infected with HIV than straight men, but of course it’s possible that the current screening system is good enough — not just in medical theory but in practical administration — that even donations from the high-risk group should be viewed as safe, given the screening. (There’s also the question whether gay men should only be disqualified if they report they have had sex with a man in the last 12 months, as opposed to if they report they have had sex with a man at all since 1977; but note that such a policy would also be discriminatory.)

But it seems to me that, regardless of that, suspending a practice as worthy and lifesaving as blood donation because of disagreement with the policy strikes me as showing a massive lack of perspective. I wrote about this with regard to the exclusion of military recruiters in 2002, and the arguments strike me as even more apt here, so let me adapt and repost them:

“Perspective,” my New Shorter Oxford Dictionary says, is “a mental view of the relative importance” of things.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the FDA is unwise in maintaining its blood exclusion policy. So what? So say the FDA is wrong — blood donations still save lives, including of course the lives of gay men. (I suspect that blood drives at universities do so even more than other blood drives, because they bring in donors who might continue to donate for the rest of their lives.) Why should the university suspend them, especially when they are conducted by organizations that are simply following the FDA’s instructions, rather than creating those instructions?

Some boycotts are purely instrumental: They aim to make things costly for some entity, so that the entity changes its ways to avoid those costs. But surely this isn’t the issue here. If the FDA changes its policy, it won’t be because they’re having a harder time getting blood from SJSU; this particular policy just can’t make that sort of practical difference. Perhaps if everyone jumps on the bandwagon, the FDA might be pressured to change. But I’ve seen no evidence that others are indeed doing it in material numbers.

What’s more, if the FDA is pressured to change by the actual risk of serious aggregate decline in the blood supply, then SJSU and the other hypothetical excluders of blood drives would be accomplishing their goals by suspending a lifesaving program, in a way that risks jeopardizing innocent lives. Is that really the right way of trying to change the FDA policy? Indeed, some causes do sometimes justify risking the death of innocents (military blockades and effective foreign sanctions have this effect). But let’s have some sense of perspective: Is getting the FDA to accept blood without sexual orientation discrimination — even if that proves to be a medically sound solution — such a cause?

So, I take it the blood drive exclusion can’t really be about practical questions — it must be about morality and symbolism. Even if it is completely ineffective as a pressure tactic, the theory goes, even if it’s not supposed to be effective as a pressure tactic (since likely SJSU doesn’t want to pressure the FDA by blocking the saving of lives), it’s still the right thing to do: The FDA’s policies are wrong, so we must refuse to help anyone who is obligated to comply with those policies.

Yet, again, let’s have some perspective. Even if blood drives are administered in a way that is bad, they obviously do a vast amount of good. So as a moral matter, excluding blood drives isn’t just remaining pure of complicity with discrimination. (“Our school shouldn’t be associated with discrimination,” one “health science major” who supports the policy is quoted as saying.) Rather, it’s remaining pure by shunning a practice that saves countless lives every year.

And as a matter of symbolism, the symbolic message isn’t “We detest discrimination.” Rather, it’s “Discrimination is so bad that we must wash our hands of helping lifesaving medical procedures, in spite of all the good they do.” SJSU has weighed life-saving blood drives in the balance, and it has found that on balance they should be shunned, rather than embraced. The symbolism of that is pretty poor.

A mental view of the relative importance of things should keep us from making this mistake. Equal treatment without regard to sexual orientation may be important. But what blood drives do is far more important. If that’s so, then you can’t treat them as a pariah activity, focusing on their small error and not on their great virtue.

When I’ve made this argument about military recruiting, some people have responded “Well, we wouldn’t let a law firm interview if it discriminated against gays; why should we let the military do so?” Yup, that’s right, the military, it’s just another bigoted law firm, people who run blood drives are just another bigoted government agency. Jones & Smith, the U.S. Army, blood drives, same difference. That’s what the logic of antidiscrimination-above-all tells us.

But perspective reminds us that those institutions that protect our lives deserve slightly more accommodation — yes, even despite what we may see as their vices — than institutions that don’t. And any morality and any symbolism that fails to keep this proper perspective is not a morality or symbolism to live by.