BEIJING – China’s Health Ministry said it is starting its first nationwide organ donation system in an attempt to stop the practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners.
The program, which will be operated jointly with the Red Cross Society of China, calls for a database in which living donors can stipulate that their organs be donated after their deaths, according to a report in Wednesday’s China Daily.
In a rare admission about a practice that until recently has been shrouded in secrecy, the Chinese government-run newspaper said 65 percent of organ donors were executed prisoners. Huang Jiefu, vice minister of health, was quoted saying that prisoners “are definitely not a proper source for organ transplant.”
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, expressed skepticism about whether China would give up the harvesting of organs from prisoners.
“Certainly, it is a step in the right direction to set up a national organ donation system, but there are powerful vested interests that will constrain reform,” Bequelin said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong.
China is believed to conduct more judicial executions than all other countries combined; Amnesty International put the number for 2008 at 1,718.
Before prisoners are executed they go through extensive blood testing to match them with potential organ recipients and receive injections to inhibit blood clotting and other treatments to improve the chances of a successful transplant. Afterward, the bodies are usually stripped of corneas, livers, kidneys and other organs.
“It is an incentive to execute people,” Bequelin said. Although prisoners in theory give their consent, he said, “we don’t believe those who sign are in a position to give free and informed consent.”
In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government was chagrined by publicity about buyers coming from the United States, Canada, Israel and elsewhere in search of organs. As a result, China enacted tighter laws governing the private sale of organs and closed down Internet sites that were advertising their services as middlemen.
Huang, the vice minister, was quoted in Wednesday’s paper saying that the new database was designed to make organs available for about 1 million Chinese on waiting lists for transplants.
“Transplants should not be a privilege for the rich,” he said.
The database is to begin as a pilot project in some areas, including Shanghai, and later will be introduced nationwide.