For decades, the organs of executed Chinese prisoners have gone directly to hospitals. But in November, the Chinese government will be phasing out the practice and will only take organs from donors who agree to the donation. The announcement makes China the last in the world to give up the practice, one that human rights organizations and the World Health Organization have been pushing against for years.
According to Reuters, the number of organs that came from prisoners wasn’t small. About 64 percent of the transplanted organs in the country came from executions. This year, that number was at 54 percent. Just like everywhere else, the number of Chinese who need organs far surpasses the number who are able to get them. But it’s not just ethics concerns that makes harvesting organs from prisons a dubious practice. Huang Jeifu, a senior Chinese official, told the BBC that organ donations from prisoners tended to have higher rates of infection than those from willing donors.
Investigations into China’s capital punishment system in the past have suggested that for the right price, prisoners could even be killed for their organs. “It’s very clear that what’s been happening is that people are being executed to order,” Fiatarone Singh, a researcher at the University of Syndey told New Scientist. “It’s inconceivable that someone could go to China and then just by chance a prisoner would be executed. And just by chance their blood type matches yours.”
But not everyone is certain that this new policy will help. China denied that organs were coming from prisoners until 2005. They passed a law in 2006 to stop organs from coming from prisoners, but they didn’t do anything to enforce that law until 2010. Until then, there was no real organized organ donation program for non-prisoners at all. The World Health Organization is hopeful, however, that the new policies in China will actually be acted upon. They spoke with Haibo Wang, the director of the China Organ Transplant Response System Research Center who pointed out some of the unique challenges to organ donation in China—including the cultural belief that people should be buried whole.
A small but growing number of people are deciding to donate willingly, though. In 2010, only 63 people in China donated organs. This year, about 130 people donated organs each month. For context, there are 300,000 people on the wait list every year for organs in China.
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