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China to launch nationwide organ donation system

Most transplanted organs have come from executed prisoners, who receive treatments to make them more suitable donors before they are put to death. Officials now say the practice is improper.
By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
August 26, 2009

Reporting from Beijing - China's Health Ministry said it is starting the government's first nationwide organ donation system in an attempt to move away from 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 death, according to a report in Wednesday's China Daily.

In a rare admission about a practice that has until recently been shrouded in secrecy, the state-run newspaper said 65% of organ donors were executed prisoners. Huang Jiefu, vice minister of health, was quoted as saying that prisoners "are definitely not a proper source for organ transplant."

Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, expressed skepticism that China would give up the harvesting of organs from prisoners.

"Certainly, it is a step in the right direction to set up an 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 2008 tally at 1,718.

Prisoners slated for execution undergo extensive blood tests to enable authorities to find matches for potential organ recipients; they are also given injections to inhibit blood clotting and other treatments to improve the chances for 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 widespread 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 unabashedly advertising their services as middlemen.

Huang, the vice minister, was quoted Wednesday as saying that the new database was designed to make organs available to the approximately 1 million Chinese waiting 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.

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