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Emily Breslin '10: Brown, the FDA, ROTC and discrimination

The U.S. Armed Forces and the Rhode Island Blood Center, a Food and Drug Administration-regulated bank, both have policies in place that exclude people on the basis of sexual orientation. According to the 1993 "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" memo, "The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct." The FDA states, "Men who have had sex with other men, at any time since 1977 (the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the United States) are currently deferred as blood donors" because they are at "increased risk" for HIV. Brown welcomes the Rhode Island Blood Center on campus at the same time that it bans Armed Forces recruiters and the Reserve Officers Training Corps precisely because it discriminates against gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Is this inconsistent? Are either of these policies ethical? There is no rational basis for the military's policy. According to federal law (10 U.S.C. § 654), the "presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability." Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition states that she "can foresee rampant violence in the military if macho men must share shower facilities, bunk beds in a submarine or fox holes with sex-crazed gay males" if the law is repealed.

The legal justification is couched in terms of differences between military and civilian life, so "numerous restrictions on personal behavior, that would not be acceptable in civilian society" are acceptable in the military. This raises the question of whether it is a right to serve in the military or not. The legal language cited suggests that it is not, and this makes a fair amount of sense.

Experts ought to be deferred to when it comes to defending the country. However, the fact that something as vague as esprit de corps is given as the reason to ban lesbian, gay and bisexual people from military service makes the policy a manifestation of persistently lingering homophobia. It is discrimination, pure and simple, not an expert opinion.

Lesbians, gays and bisexuals currently serve valiantly in the military, as well as in civil society, so this restriction does not seem to be one that is necessary in the armed forces. The military needs all of the competent people it can get right now, and this demonstrable need would seem to override the obscure possibility that the armed forces will be "taken over by gay militants," as Lafferty has it.

So what about the FDA policy? Is this exclusion warranted as part of a statistically-grounded effort to make the blood supply as safe as possible, or is it also discrimination based on prejudice? It is undeniably not a right to donate blood; everyone agrees that HIV-infected blood ought not be used in transfusions. It is a fact that "among the estimated number of persons living with HIV at the end of 2006," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "the greatest percentage of cases was attributed to male-to-male sexual contact, accounting for 48.1% overall."

By barring men who have had sexual contact with other men (sometimes referred to as MSM) from donating blood, the FDA might argue it has made the blood supply safer because there is less of a chance that tainted blood will be donated and therefore less of a chance that it will fail to detect HIV in the blood. In fact, this is exactly what they argue: "Several scientific models show there would be a small but definite increased risk to people who receive blood transfusions if FDA's MSM policy were changed and that preventable transfusion transmission of HIV could occur as a result."

We are not condoning discriminatory practices when we choose to donate blood in the same way some think we would be if we allowed ROTC on campus. The distinction made between the two policies rests on the availability of evidence. Supporters of the ban on lesbians, gays and bisexuals in the military cannot point to any facts that make the ban effective in promoting health and safety, while the FDA has hard data that its ban will.

I am tempted by the line of thought that we ought to allow ROTC on campus because we believe that intelligent minds in our military are a national necessity, just like a safe blood supply. However, in the end, I think this is a false equivalency. The argument from ignorance is never a good one; we ought not leave behind our qualms about discrimination just because we cannot say with absolute and total certainty that ROTC at Brown might produce the next great general.

Emily Breslin '10 is a philosophy concentrator from Harvard, Mass. She can be reached at



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