The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to the dismay of gay-rights activists, is recommending that any man who has had sex with another man in the previous five years be barred from serving as an anonymous sperm donor.
In rejecting demands to scrap the provision, the agency is insisting that gay men collectively pose a higher-than-average risk of carrying the AIDS virus. Accusations of the stigmatisation of all gay men has been levelled at the organisation with critics saying that the adoption of a screening process that focuses on high-risk sexual behaviour by any donor, gay or straight would be a much fairer policy.
Leland Traiman, director of a clinic in Alameda, Calif., that seeks gay sperm donors, says that under the new rules, a heterosexual man who had unprotected sex with HIV-positive prostitutes would be accepted as a donor one year later, but a gay man in a monogamous, safe-sex relationship is not unless he has been celibate for five years.
Traiman says adequate safety assurances can be provided by testing a sperm donor at the time of the initial donation, then freezing the sperm for a six-month quarantine, then, re- testing the donor again to be sure there is no new sign of HIV or other infectious diseases.
Despite disagreement over whether the FDA guideline regarding gay men will have the force of law, most doctors and clinics are expected to observe it.
The practical effect of the provision which is part of a broader set of cell and tissue donation regulations, is not clear but it is likely to affect some lesbian couples who want a child and prefer to use a gay man's sperm for artificial insemination.
Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, has called the policy one which is "based on bigotry", and it is the provision's symbolic aspect that particularly troubles gay-rights groups.
Cathcart says the most offensive and frightening aspect of the policy is that it is not based on good science, and the steadily increasing trend of heterosexual transmission of HIV has not appeared to have been considered, yet the FDA retains the notion that protection is provided by excluding gay men from the equation.
Lambda Legal has suggested the screening be based on sexual behaviour, not sexual orientation, however an FDA spokeswoman suggests that officials felt the broader exclusion was prudent even if it affected gay men who practice safe sex.
Many doctors already have been rejecting gay sperm donors, citing the pending FDA rules or existing regulations of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.