Sperm Banks and Gays:

The Washington Post ran this story, written by its health reporter, on May 6:

A new Food and Drug Administration regulation scheduled to go into effect this month calls on sperm banks to reject anonymous donations from men who have been sexually active with other men within five years — an effort to screen out potential carriers of the AIDS virus.

With a May 25 implementation day approaching, the long-debated regulation is being attacked as unscientific and bigoted by some gay groups that say the new rule stigmatizes gay men.

"This rule is based on bad science because the AIDS epidemic is an increasingly heterosexual epidemic," said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has asked the FDA to reconsider.

"We also know that sperm banks can test for HIV very well now and so can screen out any infected donor," he said. "With that in place, why are gay men being rejected?" . . .

The story goes on — I don't want to quote the whole thing, because of copyright reasons (there's a possible argument that quoting the entire article would be fair use, because I'm criticizing it, but I'd rather err on the side of caution). But nothing in the rest of the article says anything about what the FDA's response to this criticism might be, or about what (if anything) seems to be the conventional wisdom from objective and reputable sources on who's right here.

The closest the story comes to that is by saying "When the rule was adopted, acting FDA Commissioner Lester M. Crawford said it was developed with broad input and 'in all cases, we carefully considered the comments we received in the proposed rule and made changes in the final rule when the science supported the change.'" But what exactly does the science say?

It is pretty obvious — though perhaps some readers might miss it — that "This rule is based on bad science because the AIDS epidemic is an increasingly heterosexual epidemic" is an unsound argument. The risk that any U.S. male homosexual is infected with HIV are over 10 times (likely considerably over 10 times) the risk that any U.S. male heterosexual is infected with HIV. (I'm extrapolating from the year 2000 new AIDS infection numbers listed here, with a generous margin of error; I realize that this isn't the same as current HIV numbers, but it's close enough to get a confirmation of conventional wisdom, which is correct here. If anyone has more precise data, please let me know.) Given this, screening out those who are disproportionately likely to be at risk -- of course, as well as trying to use other methods to screen out donors who don't fit within the demographically most-at-risk categories, but who may have HIV nonetheless -- may well be sensible. If there's a flaw with the FDA policy, it is not that AIDS is an increasingly heterosexual epidemic (if it is that) even though in the U.S. it is still a highly disproportionately male homosexual epidemic.

But what about the argument that "We also know that sperm banks can test for HIV very well now and so can screen out any infected donor" — "[w]ith that in place, why are gay men being rejected?"? Are HIV tests certain enough that the sperm banks can efficiently and completely reliable test sperm, for instance, by freezing the sperm, testing the donor six months after the donation — six month seemingly being the period between infection and [nearly?] certain detectability — and using the sperm only if the donor comes up clean? Or is there some significant possibility of error even then?

In either case, wouldn't that information be useful in an article by a health reporter, more useful than just giving an advocacy group's take on the matter (plus a general assurance of safety from the operator of a sperm bank that accepts sperm from gays), with no sense of what impartial scientists actually say, and no discussion of any possible counterarguments?

I should stress that I genuinely have no views on what the science is. For obvious reasons, I'd love it if sperm banks could 100% reliably test sperm for HIV. It may well be that Mr. Cathcart's arguments are completely right.

But it seems to me that readers would like to have more than his arguments and those of a sperm bank operator that obviously has a stake in the matter. There should be some science on this out there somewhere, I take it, and some scientists who can speak to it, no? If there's a conventional wisdom on the subject that comes from highly reliable scientific sources, let's hear it. If the conventional wisdom is that we don't know what the right answer is, let's hear that. In any event, let's at least hear the specific arguments from the other side.

I am not trying to make any claims here about media bias. My point is simply that the story just isn't very useful to a typical casual reader who's trying to get an objective sense of the matter. Not a grand journalistic felony, I realize -- but it's the sort of journalistic misdemeanor (or even infraction, if you prefer) that, when repeated as often as this one seems to be, makes for unhelpful newspapers and ill-informed readers.

As always, please let me know if I've missed something important here.