Jansen VanderMeulen ’19 Editor-in-Chief
The Student Bar Association (SBA) voted last week to postpone the semiannual blood drive and appoint a committee led by Toccara Nelson ’19 and Tim Sensenig ’20 to study how to proceed in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) policy restricting blood donations from men who have had sex with men. Fourteen senators voted for postponement, one senator voted against, and one abstained. Students of the Law School began debating the issue immediately, with supporters hailing the decision as a victory against discrimination and detractors criticizing halting the flow of blood to those in need.
At its heart, the dispute around this Law School’s continued participation in the blood drive lies with the policies of the FDA. For decades, the FDA completely prohibited the donation of blood from the category of “men who have had sex with men” (MSM) on the theory that blood from MSM was more likely to carry risk of HIV infection. In 2015, the FDA changed the MSM blood-donation policy from indefinite prohibition to a one-year deferral policy. That is, MSM may give blood one year after their last sexual contact with another man. For advocates of allowing MSM to give blood, that change, while welcome, retains what they call a scientifically unsound and unnecessary policy.
The decision to postpone the regularly scheduled blood drive was months in the making. Astute readers of the Law Weekly will recall Kyle O’Malley ’19’s criticism of the FDA’s MSM policies and the University’s toleration of “the discrimination the FDA’s regulation engenders” in his guest column for this paper last spring. According to SBA officials who spoke with the Law Weekly, last year’s blood drive—held during Diversity Week—sparked calls to end the Law School’s participation in the blood drive, or at least couple participation with activism demanding an end to the FDA’s MSM policies. Nelson and Sensenig backed that version of events, writing in a statement to the Law Weekly that “students called on the SBA to discontinue its practice of hosting blood drives until the FDA policy becomes more inclusive and no longer stigmatizes men who have sex with men,” while other students “called on the SBA to reform its programming and promotion surrounding Blood Drives, while petitioning to keep Blood Drives on UVA’s Law Grounds.”
The result of last spring’s controversy around the blood drive was the vote to create the Special Committee on Blood Drives. Nelson and Sensenig explained the special committee “did not obtain an adequate level of participation to properly represent the diversity of perspectives” on the blood drive issue and therefore “tabled discussions until Fall 2018 to seek more student representation.” Meanwhile, the SBA’s Health and Wellness Committee went forward with scheduling the semesterly blood drive, apparently unaware that the Special Committee on Blood Drives had not yet produced a recommendation.
One student familiar with both years’ SBA deliberations, who spoke to the Law Weekly on condition of anonymity, told the paper that the Health and Wellness Committee, staffed primarily by 2Ls, did not know of the Blood Drive Committee’s existence or mandate, and scheduled the blood drive as usual. That student, supportive of the blood drive but sympathetic to allowing the special committee to finish its work, stressed that the postponement of the drive was much more about allowing a duly appointed committee to finish the work it was assigned than about ending the Law School’s participation in the blood drive.
Nelson and Sensenig stressed the same point: “We are cognizant of and sensitive to the need for [b]lood donations in the midst of Hurricane Florence,” they wrote, while emphasizing the need for the special committee to complete its work. The SBA is offering reimbursement of up to five dollars for those students who traveled to town to give blood September 17 and 18.
Reaction to the SBA’s postponement of the blood drive was mixed. Some students and student organizations reacted positively. Lambda Law Alliance President Eleanora Kaloyeropoulou ’20 wrote to the Law Weekly that she supports the special committee’s mission “of planning future, inclusive blood drives.” She went on to add that “Lambda supports the use of the committee that SBA created to handle the planning of future blood drives.”
SBA Treasurer MacLane Taggart ’19 described the postponement as “purely a reflection of SBA’s commitment to follow through with the promise made last spring to allow for a productive dialogue regarding how best to address the discrimination inherent in the FDA’s policy to not allow blood donations by men who have sex with other men.” Taggart added that he personally “support[s] blood drives at the Law School, despite [his] inability to donate blood as a gay man.” He also supports the decision to postpone the drive “until the special committee has the opportunity to make recommendations.”
Kyle O’Malley ’19 expressed support for the SBA’s decision to postpone the drive, but indicated frustration at the FDA’s continued exclusion of MSM from the blood-donation pool and at student leaders who “continue to schedule blood drives.” “My personal opinion is that individuals who are not subject to ‘deferral’ and who want to donate blood may do so,” O’Malley said, “But they are not entitled have their donation collected on Grounds. It might be inconvenient to travel off-Grounds to donate, but that can hardly be an excuse. That is—we’re either seriously committed to nondiscrimination or we’re not.”
Other students expressed frustration and disappointment that the SBA was taking out LGBTQ students’ and allies’ righteous anger on the wrong target. Wade Foster ’19, a former Lambda board member studying abroad in Australia, wrote to Nelson and Sensenig in a message shared with the Law Weekly that “protesting the UVa Law blood drive is not going to change FDA policy. It is only going to deprive the Albemarle County area of much needed blood at a time when Virginia is in a critical blood shortage.”
In comments provided to the Law Weekly only with the promise of anonymity, another student familiar with SBA deliberations said, “SBA allowed itself to be bullied away from providing desperately needed help to communities in need, especially with a major natural disaster hitting our region. This was done in the name of an ill designed political statement.”
Taylor Elicegui ’20 echoed Foster’s comments. “While I think the FDA’s policy is discriminatory and wrong, eliminating the blood drive only hurts people who need blood. I also know it’s much easier for students to access the blood drive when it’s on Grounds, even with the SBA’s reimbursement for going to town,” she said. “I hope students will contact their representatives in an effort to have this policy changed.”
Whatever their positions on the merit of the decision to postpone the blood drive, everyone involved was clear in their desire for the students of the Law School to get involved with the process, which Nelson and Sensenig hope to have wrapped up in a few weeks at the latest.
SBA President Frances Fuqua ’19 told the Law Weekly in a statement, “SBA wants to make sure everyone in this community has an opportunity to be heard and we will work towards the most collaborative solution possible when it comes to the blood drive.”
Nelson and Sensenig echoed the same idea: “We embrace the diversity of perspectives from students . . . . All members of the Law School community who are interested in this issue are welcome to join or send comments to the leaders of the special committee.” Fuqua can be reached at email@example.com. Nelson and Sensenig encourage anyone who wants to be on the committee to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org for Nelson or email@example.com for Sensenig.
 Li Zhou & R.T. Winston Berkman, “Ban the ban: A scientific and cultural analysis of the FDA’s ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men.” Columbia Medical Review June 22, 2015. https://medicalreview.columbia.edu/article/ban-the-ban/
 Kyle O’Malley, “Tainted Love.” Virginia Law Weekly March 14, 2018. https://www.lawweekly.org/col/2018/9/16/tainted-love
 Nelson and Sensenig’s full statement: For over a decade, the Student Bar Associate has been hosting a blood drive every semester on UVA’s Law Grounds. In Spring 2018, the SBA created the Special Committee on Blood Drives in response to growing controversy over the presence and timing of SBA blood drives (the Spring 2018 Blood Drive was held during Diversity Week). Several law students publicly criticized the FDA policy that prohibits blood donations from any “man who has had sex with another man during the past 12 months.”
Finding this policy discriminatory and homophobic, some of these students called on the SBA to discontinue its practice of hosting blood drives until the FDA policy becomes more inclusive and no longer stigmatizes men who have sex with men. Other students called on the SBA to reform its programming and promotion surrounding Blood Drives, while petitioning to keep Blood Drives on UVA’s Law Grounds. These students cited the important life-saving outcomes of the blood drive and the national shortage of blood, particularly in under-resourced communities. The SBA voted to create the Blood Drive Special Committee in response to this issue.
We sought student members for the Blood Drive Special Committee shortly after its formation. However, we did not obtain an adequate level of participation to properly represent the diversity of perspectives surrounding Blood Drives at UVA Law. While we brainstormed potential solutions and obtained peer school information on Blood Drives, the Special Committee did not communicate any final recommendations on the state of Blood Drives at UVA Law. We tabled discussions until Fall 2018 to seek more student representation. The SBA understood that the Blood Drive Special Committee would continue to work during the early parts of the Fall 2018 semester to resolve this issue.
Due to an institutional miscommunication, the SBA Blood Drive Special Committee was not notified about the Blood Drive that was originally planned for September 2018. Furthermore, several members of the Health and Wellness Committee were not made aware that the Blood Drive Special Committee did not have an opportunity to produce a report. Citing the lack of proper institutional procedure in allowing the Blood Drive Special Committee an opportunity to analyze student perspectives and provide recommendations, the SBA voted to postpone, and not cancel, the September 2018 Blood Drive.
We are cognizant of and sensitive to the need for Blood donations in the midst of Hurricane Florence. We, with the help and funding of the Health and Wellness Committee, encouraged student-driven carpools to Virginia Blood Services on September 17th and 18th to donate blood. The student-drivers will be reimbursed mileage by the SBA. However, we recognize that this is only a temporary and not permanent solution to the Blood Drive debate.
The Blood Drive Special Committee is working rapidly to analyze student perspectives and provide final recommendations to the SBA. We’ve again solicited requests for student membership on the Special Committee, and plan to organize another Special Committee meeting within the week. The Blood Drive Special Committee plans to provide the SBA with its recommendations within the next few weeks, if not sooner.
Our student body has a wide variety of perspectives on Blood Drives. This diversity of perspectives is evident both within and outside the LGBTQIA+ community. We embrace the diversity of perspectives from students. SBA hopes that the Blood Drive Special Committee will reach a peaceful resolution that reconciles multiple sides of this issue and unites our student community. All members of the law school community who are interested in this issue are welcome to join or send comments to the leaders of the special committee, Toccara Nelson (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Tim Sensenig (email@example.com).