For most people, donating blood is as simple as rolling up a sleeve. But not for gay men. Since 1983, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has barred them from donating.

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For most people, donating blood is as simple as rolling up a sleeve. But not for gay men. Since 1983, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has barred them from donating.

The FDA has re-examined the ban over the years, but it maintains the restriction is necessary to keep the blood supply safe and untainted by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Critics say the ban is scientifically and medically unjustified and unfairly singles out gay men.

Earlier this year, 18 senators opposed the ban in a letter to the FDA. The agency announced it would revisit the issue, but in June a government advisory board voted to uphold the restriction, disappointing not only gays but also the nation’s leading blood banks, which have opposed the rule.

The committee recommended that more research be done on alternative policies before the ban is lifted.

While the FDA is not bound to follow the panel’s decision, the agency generally follows its recommendations, said Shelly Burgess, an FDA spokeswoman. The final decision eventually will be made by top Department of Health and Human Services officials.

The ban has been defended by groups representing hemophiliacs, who say that scientific evidence for establishing more lenient donation guidelines is lacking.

“We appreciate the altruism of those wishing to donate,” Mark Skinner, president of the World Federation of Hemophilia, said in an e-mail message. “We recognize that donor deferral policies are discriminatory by their very nature.”

“Currently we don’t have the answers to change the system,” he added, “but through research we may be able to answer the critical questions in a way that would allow adapting the system.”

The FDA initially banned gay men from giving blood when the risk of AIDS from transfusions was recognized. At the time, it was considered the best way to keep the blood supply safe. The restriction applies to any man who acknowledges having had sex with another man since 1977.

Gay-rights groups, blood banks and many doctors and scientists consider the ban inconsistent with the restrictions placed on other high-risk groups and antiquated in light of the advances that have been made in testing donated blood.

Donated blood is routinely screened for HIV and other infectious agents. The FDA employs multiple safeguards, including donor evaluations and computerized blood testing, to ensure that infected blood is not distributed.

Since the 1980s, when the ban was enacted, the tests have become much more sensitive and accurate. The FDA did not take this into account when it reviewed the restriction in past years, said Bebe Anderson, HIV project director for Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights group that has opposed the ban.

“We think this policy is harmful and makes no sense,” she said. “This is screening donors based on sexual orientation, not on risk. It also stigmatizes people who wish to donate.”

Brad Basso, a project manager for a nonprofit organization in St. Paul, Minn., first tried to donate blood in college but was turned away because he is gay. Now he finds himself trying to explain to co-workers why he can’t donate blood when blood drives are held at work.

Many who are critical of the policy have asked the FDA instead to require that gay men refrain from giving blood for 12 months after having sex with another man. They say that would bring the restriction into line with those in place for other donors who have engaged in potentially risky behavior.

The FDA has said that its policy is based on statistics: Men who have had sex with other men since 1977 have an HIV infection rate 60 times higher than that of the general population. Even the most sensitive tests may not pick up a new HIV infection within a one- to two-month window. That’s why most blood-collection agencies are suggesting a one-year deferral period for gay men who have engaged in sex with another man.