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China vows to ban organ harvesting

5th November 2012

Health officials in China will set up a national organ donation network in early 2013, and have pledged to phase out the use of organs from executed prisoners for transplants.

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Beijing acknowledges that there are ethical problems with the use of organs from executed prisoners, and that such a system is unsustainable, according to government-appointed health expert Wang Haibo.

Over the past two years, the Red Cross Society of China has run a pilot organ donation scheme in some areas of the country, and the government plans to expand it nationwide by early next year.

Wang said in an interview published in the World Health Organisation's journal Bulletin that a consensus now exists among China’s transplant community that the new system must change its "reliance on organs from executed convicts."

According to Wang, who was appointed last year to lead a research center setting up the organ donation network, the "old practice" will be phased out and the new system implemented at around the same time.

The illegal organ trade has become an open secret in China, with online advertisements openly recruiting people wishing to donate their kidneys or livers for cash.

A shortage of legally sourced organs to meet the growing demand for transplants has led to accusations from rights groups that the criminal justice system works together with local hospitals to secure them.

The government has been accused of skipping over the question of consent, either with coerced agreements before the prisoner is executed, or simply by cremating the bodies of those executed so no evidence remains.

According to the government, 1.5 million patients are on the waiting list for transplant organs in China in any given year, but willing donors are few and far between.

Only 15,000 people have signed up for the Red Cross donation scheme so far, according to official figures.

Traditional beliefs often stand in the way of the removal or transplant of organs, even for patients who need a diseased organ removed.

Relatives often refuse to donate organs to a loved one because they believe in bodily integrity as a condition for admission to the afterlife.

Hospitals are currently forced to rely on organs from people who have died suddenly.

Doctors warn that an equitable distribution system is also needed to be sure that the service is not just the preserve of the rich.

Huang Jiefu, vice health minister, has pledged to abolish the current practice of transplanting organs from executed prisoners within five years.

The ministry wants to try to encourage more citizens to donate, official media reported recently.

According to experts who testified at a US congressional hearing in September, China has also been extracting vital body parts from living prisoners.

According to researcher Ethan Gutman, who has carried out interviews with Chinese medical professionals, law enforcement personnel, and over 50 former prisoners of China’s laogai labor-camp system since 2006, two-thirds of transplant organs in China come from prisoners.

As part of his testimony to the Oversight and Investigation and Human Rights Subcommittees of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Gutman said that doctors began to take organs from living prisoners as well, though at first the victims of this practice were executed prisoners.

Beijing strongly denies that it deliberately executes prisoners to harvest organs.


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