Following the death of her 16-year-old son, Sheryl Moore found what little comfort she could in the thought of his organs helping someone in need. Right before his suicide in July 2013, Alexander “AJ” Betts decided to become an organ donor because “he spent his entire life trying to make people feel good,” Moore told the Des Moines Register. The grieving mother would later find out that while some of his organs were donated, his eyes, which are considered tissue, were rejected simply because he was gay.
Betts came out as a gay teen around a year and a half before his untimely death, which drew cruelty and torment at the hands of his fellow classmates. When the weight of constant bullying perpetrated by people who were supposed to be his friends became too much to bear, he decided to take his own life, but not before ensuring he would be able to help others even after death. Betts' heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver were all approved for donation, but his eyes, however, were rejected due to the distinction between organ and tissue.
The Food and Drug Administration classifies eyes as tissue rather than organs, meaning they have a different set of standards for donation. While Betts' organs were approved for donation, his eyes were denied because, according to the FDA, tissue from gay men carries an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. The same rules that restrict gay men from donating tissue also restricts them from donating blood.
The American Association of Tissue Banks states that tissue donor screening is a more meticulous process compared to organ donor screening in order to prevent the transmission of viral, bacterial, malignant, or prion-associated disease. Whereas organs are a collection of tissue that work together for a common purpose, tissue is a collection of cells tasked with a common goal. In order to donate tissue, donors must undergo a thorough review of all “relevant medical records” to ensure the safety of both tissue recipients and medical personnel handling the tissue donation.