The practice of using the organs of executed prisoners for transplantation has been going on since at least 1984 in China, and it has been treated as a state secret for most of that time. At that time the gov’t formulated a directive that formally legalized the practice, and prescribed specific instructions for keeping the practice from being exposed. No white clothes, no vans with hospital insignias, and guards had to be present during the operations. The first acknowledgement from Chinese officials came in 1991.
For 28 years, the practice continued without much discussion in the Chinese press, and frequent denials from Chinese citizens. In 2005 however, the curtain was slightly pulled back once again thanks to China Daily, which featured a very brief acknowledgement of the practice. Again in 2009 China Daily admitted the practice, saying that of 10,000 transplanted organs, 65% came from executed prisoners. During the Two Meetings this year the topic was once again broached, and China’s recently freed netizens were shocked; even though their gov’t had reported such practices in the past, they had been more frequently told that the practice was a fabrication of the foreign media to demonize China.
These reports confirmed what a doctor friend from another hospital had told me one day, “most of the organs come from executed prisoners, it’s very bad, but…” I knew what his silence meant, less than 1/10th of Chinese patients needing transplants receive them. The practice is usually presented in pragmatic terms, if these people don’t donate their organs, others will die. This has led to gov’t funded research into artificial liver tissue.
Today though, the gov’t announced two plans in separate articles. One that would “abolish the practice of taking transplant human organs from condemned prisoners within three to five years,” and another that would allow monetary compensation for organ donors.
While many are unconvinced that the gov’t will follow through on this commitment, it’s actually through a less controversial statistic that we can roughly track their progress – the total number of organ donations. People’s Daily stated that “China has advocated the prudent use of the death penalty over recent years, which has led to a decrease in organ donations from condemned prisoners,” and when we look at the 2005 article we see a claim of 20,000 transplants, compared to 10,000 performed in 2009. So by using their own numbers (65% of organs from prisoners), we should see a corresponding decrease in the number of transplantation operations performed (to ~3,500).
From the second article we can see that from 2010-2012 only 206 individuals have donated a total of 543 organs, with the rest coming from prisoners and family members (using this ratio of organs per donor, the 6,500 prisoner organs came from at least 2,500 executed prisoners). If this donation program were met with even the fantastic growth of 300% by 2017, we should expect to see no more than 5,000 transplants total.
The proposal to compensate families of organ donors is not without controversy, but there seems to have been a greater deal of insight put into this plan than some of the others that have come out in the last year. Families will not be allowed to apply for compensation until after the organs have been harvested, meaning that there is no guarantee of payment. Ideally such a program would reduce the cultural opposition to organ donation, and the payments could be done away with gradually.
At the very least, the death penalty and the use of executed prisoner organs are coming back into public focus. While it might seem that 5 years is a long time to continue the practice, this is at least a goal to be aiming for.