China to 'tidy up' trade in executed prisoners' organs

The Times
Dec. 03, 2005

CHINA broke its silence yesterday to admit for the first time that the organs of executed prisoners were sold to foreigners for transplant.

For many years it has denied that such a trade existed. But Huang Jiefu, the Deputy Health Minister, acknowledged that the practice is widespread and promised to tighten the rules.

“We want to push for regulations on organ transplants to standardise the management of the supply of organs from executed prisoners and tidy up the medical market,” Mr Huang told Caijing magazine.

Mr Huang said that regulations drafted in August and now being amended before being handed to the State Council for final approval aim to end the commercialisation of organ transplants in China.

The only existing regulation covering the removal of organs from the bodies of executed prisoners is a 1984 draft document that stipulates that such operations can take place only with the consent of the family or if the body goes unclaimed.

Mr Huang added that the regulations would help to improve China’s image over organ transplants and give condemned prisoners greater control over whether to donate their organs. They will also make it more difficult to buy organs removed after execution.

The supply of organs in China is severely restricted because of religious traditions that require the body to be whole when it enters the afterlife. Yet the country has carried out more organ transplants than any other except the US. Since 1993 China has performed 60,000 kidney transplants, 6,000 liver transplants and 250 heart transplants.

One reason is that transplants are big business. A liver costs nearly £18,000 for Chinese patients, or about £24,000 for foreigners. A kidney costs £3,500 for Chinese. Foreigners typically pay a premium, although the price is about 30 per cent lower than in many countries.

An Israeli newspaper recently reported that dozens of people were flocking to China each month for cheap transplants. “If I had never had my kidney transplant in China, I would already be dead,” Abraham Sassoon, from Eilat, told Maariv newspaper. “A Chinese sentenced to death saved my life.”

The one-year survival rate for a liver transplant in China is about 50 per cent, compared with 81 per cent in the US.

Almost all organs harvested from dead bodies came from those of executed prisoners, Caijing magazine said. That has prompted human rights organisations to question the way in which organs are obtained and supplied to patients requiring transplants. In the past doctors have recounted how they have travelled to execution grounds in specially equipped ambulances with a team of nurses to harvest the organs with as little delay as possible.

Executions in China have long been carried out with a single bullet to the head or the heart. That practice changed in the late 1990s when the use of lethal injection was introduced to make the organs usable.

No official figures are available for the number of executions in China each year and legal experts say that this is partly because the authorities have never compiled a total. However, Amnesty International says that more people are executed in China than in the rest of the world combined, and estimates the total at about 3,400 each year — and possibly as many as 6,000.

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