Healthcare, Society

Buy and cell

China will stop removing bodily organs from prisoners

Buy and cell

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today,” writes Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. “Overall, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America – more than 6 million – than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin.”

We suspect the New Yorker’s fact-checkers were working overtime on that statistic but as Fareed Zakaria also points out in TIME, the United States imprisons seven to 10 times as many people as other developed nations.

Zakaria says the US has 760 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens (by contrast, Japan has 63, Germany has 90 and even Mexico is lower at just 208). And in a new TV show called The 700 Club, evangelist Pat Robertson also came up with an incredible stat: “We here in America make up 5% of the world’s population but we make up 25% of the world’s jailed prisoners.”

Those numbers jar with the American reputation as the “land of the free”. But WiC imagines that readers will be less shocked by some grim statistics emerging from China’s penal system. In this case: the sale of the bodily organs of dead prisoners.

From its inception in the early sixties, China’s organ transplant programme has relied on the body parts taken from executed criminals. This ready supply – China executes more criminals than any other country in the world – has allowed it to run one of the largest transplant programmes in the world, with over 10,000 operations a year.

As the New York Times points out, the practice is one of the country’s “most criticised human rights issues”. Families say organs have been removed from relatives without consent – although the Chinese government denies this. And groups such as Amnesty International even suggest that executions can be speeded up – meaning that inmates have less chance for a proper appeal – in order to meet medical demand for body parts.

But in a speech last week in Hangzhou, China’s vice minister for health Huang Jiefu announced plans to phase out inmate organ removal over the next three to five years.

“The pledge to abolish organ donation from condemned convicts represents the resolve of the government,” Xinhua reported Huang as saying.

Another reason for the move (it’s unlikely that the authorities would admit to being swayed by criticism) is that the reliance on prison organ supply has stunted the development of a public donation programme.

China legalised the donation of organs (outside the prison system) in 2007, although only between family members. In 2010 the country began a public donation scheme in 16 provinces, and this month Huang announced plans to extend it to the rest of the country.

But China still has more than a million people waiting for organ transplants, according to the People’s Daily. Part of the problem is that there has been little education on organ donation. Many Chinese also feel uncomfortable about burying or cremating a body which is not whole, the Guangzhou Daily reports. “The Book of Filial Piety says your body is from your parents and you should not damage it and even after death we are taught to preserve the integrity of the body,” it explains.

But as the commentary also points out, the greater issue may well be one of trust, with potential donors unsure that a government-run system would serve all people equitably. (As a guest on the BBC Radio Four show Moral Maze in the UK pointed our recently, people are more likely to donate their organs if they feel that they or a family member would also benefit from a similar scheme in event of an accident.)

The government’s decision to have the Chinese Red Cross run the new donation programme has compounded doubts. As readers of WiC will recall, the organisation’s reputation (it has nothing to do with the Geneva-based Red Cross) took a nosedive last year when Guo Meimei, a young woman claiming to be an employee of the charity, posted pictures online of her lavish lifestyle (see WiC113).

Since then blood donations have also plummeted (the Chinese Red Cross oversees this programme too) and by the end of last year, in the 16 provinces where it was possible to register as an organ donor, only 163 people had applied.

“Donate my heart so another Guo Meimei can have a new handbag? No thanks!” wrote one weibo user.

“The Red Cross has found another way to make blood money,” wrote another.

With no priority list existing for receipt of donated organs, it has also been easier for those with connections to pay to jump the queue.

In 2005 there was public interest in the case of actor Fu Biao, who received two liver transplants in the space of a year after he got liver cancer and the first transplant failed.

The vast majority of people waiting for transplants in China never even get the offer of a first organ, so critics queried how Fu got two chances in such a short space of time.

The shortages also means a thriving black market in body parts. Earlier this month Chinese media reported that a court in Beijing was trying 16 men, including doctors in government hospitals, for brokering illegal kidney transplants in operations worth over $1.5 million.

If prisons no longer provide organs, the black market will likely thrive further, no doubt leading to more stories similar to one in the Nanfang Daily this month, in which a man from Chongqing claims to have woken up to find his kidney missing.

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