China to ban use of executed prisoners' organs for transplants

Saturday 02 November 2013 17.01
A protest with a mock operation earlier this year in Hong Kong against forced organ harvesting in China
A protest with a mock operation earlier this year in Hong Kong against forced organ harvesting in China

China - the last country in the world systematically harvesting organs from executed prisoners - is to ban the practice next year according to a senior official.               

By mid-2014, all hospitals licensed for transplants must stop using organs from executed prisoners.

Voluntarily donated organs and allocated through a fledging national transplant and donor system will only be used. 

The supply of human organs falls far short of demand in China due in part to a traditional belief that bodies should be buried or cremated intact.

An estimated 300,000 patients are wait-listed every year for organ transplants but only around one in 30 ultimately receives a transplant.           

That shortage has driven a trade in illegal organ trafficking.

In 2007, transplants from living donors were banned, except from spouses, blood relatives and adopted or step-family members.

China does not publish the numbers of people it executes, though the World Coalition Against The Death Penalty estimates it was about 4,000 last year.

Officials say the figure is falling. 

Courts which oversee executions have been told they are no longer allowed to offer organs to hospitals. 

Mr Huang Jiefu, a former deputy health minister and Australian-trained transplant surgeon who is heading China's organ transplant reform said that a fall in executions meant prisoners' organs could no longer be relied on. 

"China has meted out fewer and fewer death sentences, so reliance on death-row inmates' donations will become a dead end," he said. 

"So we must rely on voluntary donations," he added.

He admitted the problem of an organ black market was not something the country will easily resolve. 
              
"The illegal trade of human organs will be inevitable in Chinese society in the years to come," said Mr Huang.

"The huge demand for organs is one of the causes. As long as there's a gap between supply and demand, illegal organ trafficking won't disappear, but the government will continue to crack down on it," he told Reuters.

INTERNATIONAL CRITICISM            

Beijing said in August it would begin to phase out the practice of using executed prisoners' organs this month. Mr Huang did not give an exact date for a ban on their use.
              
"Using executed prisoners' organs for transplants does not meet with the ethical standards universally accepted, and has always received criticism from the international community," Mr Huang told a meeting of health and hospital officials in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

"China's organ transplant reform is the government's political commitment to the people, and the world," he said.
              
"There has never been a law that regulates the use of prisoners' organs. Enforcement of the policy has many loopholes,and there have been a lot of scandals that tarnish the image of the Chinese government," Mr Huang added. 

VOLUNTEER PROGRAMMES            

To cut back on its dependency on prisoners' organs, China has launched pilot volunteer organ donor programmes in 25 provinces and municipalities since February.

The aim is to create a nationwide voluntary scheme by the end of this year.
              
The number of transplants using donated organs has jumped to more than 900 cases in the first seven months of this year from 245 in 2011.

It is still less than half the number of organs from death-row inmates, according to data provided by Mr Huang.
              
Human rights groups say many organs are taken from prisoners without their consent or their family's knowledge, something the government denies.
              
A decrease in organ supply will also put more pressure on China's nascent donation system.
              
A transplant surgeon at Saturday's meeting from the nearby city of Nanjing, who asked to be identified by his last name, Li, said it was likely the new rules would limit the number of transplants they were able to carry out.
              
"There might be a temporary shortage of organs. If so, we will just have to do fewer transplants. There's nothing we can do about that. Other countries haven't solved that problem either," he said. 

Keywords: china, transplants