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"Stop Organ Harvesting in China" illustration
"Stop Organ Harvesting in China" illustration
Zhang jin

BEIJING — Beginning in January, China will abandon harvesting organs from executed prisoners, and organs needed for transplants will all come from donations, authorities have announced.

Many Chinese don't necessarily understand the profound meaning of this reform. Five years ago, I was personally involved in developing a report entitled, "Where Do Organs Come From?" published in Caijing Magazine. The report told the shocking story of a murder case in which the corpse of a homeless man was discovered with all his organs removed.

The story also revealed shocking information about China's organ trading. From 1960 until 2006, China was the only country in the world harvesting organs from executed prisoners as the only source for transplants.

Since then, China has been striving to make the process of organ transplant more transparent and morally acceptable. In the beginning, nobody predicted that this would be a hard road. In China, more than a million people wait each year for an organ transplant while on average only 10,000 of those will receive one. The majority of their donors are from death row. People used to regard this as reasonable.

But while most countries have abandoned using the organs of executed prisoners, China still systematically uses them, and it has become a shame on Chinese people that the country finally plans to deal with.

From a medical point of view, it is unhealthy to conduct a transplant procedure right after an execution because of the limitations in location and technique. Various infections are common, which reduce the chances of a successful transplant. China has lost opportunities for research cooperation because the international medical community has frowned on the country's methods.

From a social point of view, harvesting the organs of executed prisoners involves too many economic interests. The prevalence of trading for money has corrupted China's judicial and medical professions.

In 2005, at the World Health Organization meeting for organ transplants held in the Philippines, Chinese authorities made it clear for the first time that it would reform its organ transplant system with progressive legislation.

Thereafter, China criminalized organ trading. Other regulations now also expressly prohibit organ transplant tourism and identify the right of citizens to organ donation.

Meanwhile, to solve the sourcing problem, China's Ministry of Health and the Red Cross of China launched a pilot scheme to encourage voluntary organ donation. As a result, an initial organ donation system has taken shape in China.

Still, it's not smooth sailing yet. It will be a difficult task to interrupt the economic chain of profit from the organs of executed criminals. In recent years, the number of approvals for China's death penalty has dropped, meaning that the number of organs available from executed prisoners has declined sharply.

Meanwhile, there are six million natural deaths in China every year. Even if just 1% of those people donated their organs, it could benefit 60,000 people, more or less meeting current clinical needs.

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