January 23, 2007

Donor policy should put safety first

I recently found out that the Kyle Lee–Ryan Kaminski College Council (CC) incident is still a prominent issue on campus at the U of C. For those who don’t remember, the event that sparked the whole scandal was when Kaminski accused Lee of, among other things, organizing a blood drive that had restrictions on donors, constituting “inherent structural racism and heterosexism.”

I wish to add some objective information to that discussion and comment as an outside observer. First, let me comment that I have been a physician since 1985. In the past 21 years I have ordered several thousand blood transfusions for my patients. I am therefore familiar with the process for obtaining and administering donated blood and blood products.

I have also performed volunteer surgical work in African nations. Thus, I am familiar with the high incidence of HIV transmission in those countries.

Thirdly, I have cared for many HIV–infected patients here in Chicago, and thus I am familiar with the devastation individuals and families face. It is with these experiences and qualifications that I wish to comment upon the situation of Lee.

Kaminski suggested, in his assault upon the well intentioned blood drive, that the prevention of donations of blood from persons who have visited certain African nations constitutes “inherent structural racism” against those persons. That contention is ridiculous.

The American Red Cross (ARC) guidelines are based on statistical fact. Among those facts is the clear data that the rate of latent or “hidden” HIV infection is higher in persons who have recently visited certain African nations.

Likewise, Kaminski attacked Lee’s planned blood drive, with its restrictions upon persons who have engaged in homosexual behavior, as “heterosexist.” This is another absurd attack by Kaminski. To this date, the rate of hidden infection by HIV is higher in persons with a history of homosexual activity. That very sentence might again make Mr. Kaminski “queasy,” but it needs to be stated.

When trying to protect the health of blood product recipients, we do not unnecessarily risk lives so that we can save Kaminski from his queasiness. We don’t throw away life just so we can be politically correct. That is the thing about science and public health policy. One looks at the facts. One then acts in the way that keeps people safe, period.

I wholeheartedly believe that there is indeed much work to be done for gay rights in our society. In fact, I would stand shoulder to shoulder with Kaminski to work against, for example, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy or against a constitutional ban on gay marriage. However, in the case of Lee, Kaminski has it all wrong. Furthermore, the University’s LGBT community, or at least some of its members, is shooting at the wrong target. These misguided activists are demonstrating ignorance about blood donations.

Homophobia and discrimination certainly are still commonly encountered, and it is for that reason that making false charges must be avoided. Making false charges, such as those made against Lee, will only weaken efforts against true homophobia and true discrimination.

Rather than censuring Lee, who has apologized for his insensitive e-mail, the CC should have considered censuring Kaminski for his outrageous allegations. He has been wrong from the start, and the fact that eight College Council members voted for [Lee’s] impeachment makes me wonder if these members are able to think beyond political correctness.

Perhaps what’s best now is for the parties involved to move forward in a manner that does not disrupt the function of the CC. Also, members of your student body should focus on medical facts, not emotion, when judging public health controversies. This will be especially necessary when, after graduation, they encounter health policies that might appear at first glance to be discriminatory.