Pittsburgh Organ Donor Rejected For Being Gay, His Family Insists, Though The Agency Tells Quite A Different Story

Two weeks ago, 48-year-old Rohn Neugebauer died from a heart attack. Shortly afterwards, a representative from the Center for Organ Recovery and Education asked his sister, Sandy Schultheis, a list of questions to determine if he would be an eligible donor. Now, Neugebauer's sister and family are claiming that he was turned away as an organ donor because he was gay, which his sister told the rep.

According to Schultheis, she told the CORE representative that Neugebauer had been in a committed relationship with a man for eight years, and the rep responded by telling her they couldn't accept his organs.

Neugebauer's family and partner, Dan Burda, have since gone public with CORE's alleged decision to bar Neugebauer as an organ donor. A woman based in Pittsburgh named Erin Mullen also created a Change.org petition making demands from CORE.

We are excluding the possibility of perfectly good organs from benefiting and potentially saving the lives of those who are dying or have a poor quality of life simply because the donor happens to be a homosexual. We have started this petition because the FDA regulations are out of date and impeding individuals from receiving life saving organs ans [sic] tissue...

So far, over 7,000 people have signed the petition. Supporters of Neugebauer are also using the hashtag #TeamRohn on Twitter to draw attention to the petition and allegations.

But this case might not be as cut-and-dry as it seems. CORE's CEO has told another story: Because Neugebauer died of a heart attack, his organs wouldn't have been eligible for donation anyway — and that would leave only his skin, his bones, and similar tissue to be donated. According to CORE's CEO, organs are considered "life-saving," but tissue is only "life-enhancing."

What does this distinction mean? While there's no ban of organ donation from sexually active gay men, guidelines from the Center for Disease Control state that "men who have had sex with another man in the preceding five years" should be excluded from being organ donors. This is regardless of HIV antibody test results, unless "the risk to the recipient of not performing the transplant is deemed to be greater than the risk of HIV transmission and disease."

Since tissue is only life-enhancing, according to these guidelines, the remaining tissue Neugebauer could have donated didn't fall under the CDC's exception, which is meant to save recipients.

The story recalls the ongoing issue of stigma against gay donors more generally — in particular, gay and bisexual men who are excluded from donating blood. Still, CORE's CEO say that it's not an issue of homophobia but an issue of protecting recipients from infections like HIV (initial blood tests aren't always completely reliable.)

The exceptions to the CDC guidelines stem in part from a bill President Barack Obama signed five months ago called the HIV Organ Policy Equity (HOPE) Act, which now allows doctors to transplant organs from HIV-positive individuals as long as it's deemed safe.