By Felipe Bueno
The practice is simple in theory: give your organs that you no longer require to someone in need and help facilitate their life.
However, the issue lies in the nature of consent; for example, in the United States, when a person dies, their organs cannot be transplanted unless they had given written consent. In China, where organs are harvested from death row inmates, whether or not it was voluntary is often debated.
As StopOrganHarvesting.org reports, from 2003 to 2006, when there was nothing like “live organ donation” in place in China, the number of organ transplants sharply increased from 15,000 to 20,000 per year. This is attributed to the illegal harvesting of inmates’ organs, which is relatively easy as every aspect of an inmate’s life is controlled by the government. After execution, the harvesting process of inmate organs becomes simpler, as officials no longer need to concern themselves with mortality.
In response to these allegations, the Chinese government vowed to stop illegal organ harvesting. According to the New York Times, the announcement came during a meeting with the China Organ Procurement Organization Alliance, an organization set to transition China from dependence on inmate organs to a more voluntary program.
This statement was welcomed by human rights advocates and doctors around the world, until the Chinese government found a legal loophole to continue this practice. The government can relabel prisoners as citizens, allowing them to continue harvesting.
According to The New York Times, Dr.Huang Jiefu, a former health minister in China, rationalized this policy by saying, “Death-row prisoners are also citizens, and the law does not deprive them of their right to donate organs.”
As Dr.Huang told the Beijing Times, “Once the organs from death row prisoners who have voluntarily donated are included in our national distribution system, they are counted as voluntary citizen donations.”
Because illegal organ harvesting has grown significantly within China, its implications have affected other countries. Foreign patients are traveling to China to receive transplants with illegally acquired organs. The process has become a luxury, with patients from the United States paying ten times what Chinese patients pay for transplants.
Entire wings of transplant centers are also being designed specifically for patients traveling from abroad.
The problem becomes international in nature when foreign patients who receive transplants in China try to seek post-transplant care in their home countries. The New York Times reports that many doctors, including Dr. Thomas Diflo of New York University, are caught in the ethical dilemma of whether to treat patients who have received illegal transplants or not.