China’s Prisoner Organ Transplant Policy is Causing Controversy Amongst the Global Medical Community

China Organ Transplants Prisoners

On January 1, 2015, China officially ended its decades-long practice of harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for medical transplants. It was considered an ethical triumph for medical professionals and humans rights advocates worldwide, and a step towards transforming China’s corrupt, often underground and illegal organ market.

But many medical officials claim this exploitative practice was never truly brought to an end. Rather, the Chinese government implemented an “administrative trick” to make its globally unaccepted method of harvesting human organs appear ethical.

The policy simply reclassified prisoners as “citizens” in order to include them in China’s new citizen organ donation system, thus making voluntary donations from citizens the “sole source” of organs for transplant. In defense of the policy, Dr. Huang Jiefu, a former deputy health minister and chairman of the National Health and Family Planning Commission’s Human Organ and Transplant Committee, says, Death row prisoners are also citizens, and the law does not deprive them of their right to donate their organs. If death-row prisoners are willing to donate their organs to atone for their crimes, then they should be encouraged.”

Most medical professionals nevertheless still find China’s methods dubious, and its new policy is by no means approved and accepted by the World Medical Association, which opposes the use of organs from prisoners in any country that has the death penalty.

Concern and dissent amongst the global medical community sparked recently with the 26th International Congress of The Transplantation Society, which is being held in Hong Kong this year. Although Hong Kong does not practice capital punishment and has an organ donation system separate from China’s mainland, it is still under Chinese rule and thus a controversial location for the conference.

In the current context, it is not possible to verify the veracity of the announced changes and it thus remains premature to include China as an ethical partner in the international transplant community,” wrote the authors of an article published in the American Journal of Transplantation a day before the conference began. Until we have independent and objective evidence of a complete cessation of unethical organ procurement from prisoners, the medical community has a professional responsibility to maintain the academic embargo on Chinese transplant professionals.

One of the article’s authors, Dr. Jacob Lavee, president of the Israel Transplantation Society, and member of the Transplantation Society’s ethics committee as well as the advisory board of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, refused to attend the conference as protest against China’s policy, which he deems “a crime against humanity.”

Dr. Lavee argues that by holding its conference in Hong Kong and presenting papers from China, the Transplant Society has  “abandoned the only weapon against China it has in asking it to ethically source organs as it is supposed to.”

Including China only encourages and reinforces its practices, practices which the Transplant Society states under its Policy & Ethics that it opposes. If the global medical community doesn’t stand together in opposing its practices, how can China ever be expected to truly change?

Samantha Hendricks
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