Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Thursday, May 05, 2005

No Queer Sperm!

Interesting article here. The short version is that the FDA is making a rule banning men who have had gay sex within the past five years from being anonymous sperm donors.

"The FDA has rejected calls to scrap the provision, insisting that gay men collectively pose a higher-than-average risk of carrying the AIDS virus."

Yes, I don't think that risk-assessment is reasonably disputed. It may be asked, of course, whether risk alone is good enough for a general ban, rather than an individualized determination.

The rule, of course, has gay rights advocates unhappy.

"'Under these rules, a heterosexual man who had unprotected sex with HIV-positive prostitutes would be OK as a donor one year later, but a gay man in a monogamous, safe-sex relationship is not OK unless he's been celibate for five years,' said Leland Traiman, director of a clinic in Alameda, California, that seeks gay sperm donors."

Traiman argues for the latter:

"Traiman said 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 and testing the donor again to be sure there is no new sign of HIV or other infectious diseases."

In other words, increased costs and possibility of error is more important than hurting anyone's feelings? Please. We're discussing the an activity that could potentially lead to women contracting a deadly disease and dying, but some people are more concerned with politics.

Because Traiman sees fit to rely on generalizations, I guess I can, too. According to every report I've ever seen, homosexuals are statistically unlikely to be in "a monogamous, safe-sex relationship." Sure, some are, but not many, and that's part of the reason that gay men are more likely to have AIDS. It is also generally true that a man is not as likely to contract the disease from an HIV+ woman as a man from an HIV+ man.

Considering these generalizations, and assuming that no screening system is perfect, posit ten sperm samples from gay men (set A) and ten samples from straight men (set B). Now suppose that the screening system works for the first nine samples in either set, and fails for the last samples in both sets. It is more likely, given the characteristics of the donor group, that the set A sample will be HIV+ than the set B sample. With these results in mind, we can drastically reduce the deadly effects from screening failures by simply refusing set A donations. And less people will die as a result. Traiman may be proposing a safer screening process, but it's also a) more expensive, and b) still imperfect, so the set A samples are still more likely to produce negative results.

Here's a guy who makes a poor statistics-argument:

"'The part I find most offensive -- and a little frightening -- is that it isn't based on good science,' Cathcart said. 'There's a steadily increasing trend of heterosexual transmission of HIV, and yet the FDA still has this notion that you protect people by putting gay men out of the pool.'"

But this misses the point. It doesn't matter if set B donations are getting increasingly more dangerous compared to past set B donations, if set A donations are still significantly more dangerous as a whole. Let me come up with an analogy.

Suppose I decide I want to send one hundred kindergartners to school with fake hand grenades. I have two suppliers of fake hand grenades, Company A and Company B. As it turns out, both companies occasionally screw up and send real hand grenades. Statistically, Company A send me 50 live grenades per 100, and Company B sends me only 5 live grenades per 100. Of course, being a responsible person, I inspect the grenades before giving them to the kindergartners, but hey, I make mistakes sometimes. I can reasonably argue that, for the sake of the children, I won't send any grenades from Company A, because the danger that I'll accidentally send a live grenade is just too great. But wait, objects the president of Company A, some of the Company B grenades are live, too! Sure, but when my screening system fails me, there is only a 5% chance that a B grenade that slips through the system will be live, whereas an A grenade that slips through has a 50% chance of being live.

Now let's go move a year into the future, and Company B is getting sloppy. The president of Company A, in order to win back my business, presents convincing evidence that now 10 in every hundred B grenades is live, doubling the amount of dangerous grenades and the likelihood that a grenade with a failed screening will be live. That may be so, I respond, but 10 is still a lot better than 50, yes? It seems like such a simple concept, doesn't it? But the concept is lost on Mr. Cathcart, who doesn't seem to realize the difference between "good science" and "good math."

"'With an anonymous sperm donor, you can't be too careful,' said a society spokeswoman, Eleanor Nicoll. 'Our concern is for the health of the recipient, not to let more and more people be sperm donors.'"