China’s participation in Vatican transplant summit draws worldwide concern and sharp criticism

The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) held its first meeting to address organ trafficking and transplant tourism around the world from February 7-8, 2017. Eighty doctors, medical professionals, NGO representatives, government ministers, judges, law enforcement personnel and journalists attended the two-day summit. Pope Francis called for the unprecedented gathering to combat organ trade practices, which he has referred to as a “new form of slavery.”

Among the 11 recommendations approved by PAS in anticipation of the summit was declaring the use of organs from executed prisoners “as crimes that should be condemned worldwide and legally prosecuted at the national and international level.”

Before the conference began, ethicists and human rights activists around the world wrote to Vatican officials to express their concern about China’s participation at the summit. Among those were human rights lawyer David Matas and the Hon. David Kilgour, authors of extensive research on China’s illicit organ harvesting practices, Enver Tohti, a former surgeon from Xinjiang, China and Wendy Rogers, a Professor of Clinical Ethics at Macquarie University and Chair of the International Advisory Committee of the International Coalition to End Organ Pillaging in China. Their joint letter cautioned Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the PAS, to consider the risks of aligning with a government that so severely violates human rights. “We urge the summit to consider the plight of incarcerated prisoners in China who are treated as expendable human organ banks.” The Vatican, the authors added, “should be aware of how the endorsements, even indirect, of prestigious foreign bodies are used by China’s propaganda apparatus.”

Sorondo defended Huang’s inclusion at the summit: “Are they doing any illegal transplantation of organs in China? We can’t say. But we want to strengthen the movement for change.” He dismissed allegations of forced organ harvesting in China as “political assertions” and further claimed that certain key organ harvesting researchers had participated in “political events on the condemnation of China,” such as testifying before a U.S. Congressional hearing and at the European Parliament.

As reported in The New York Times, organizers for the PAS summit stood firm in their invitation and even came to China’s defense in trying to prevent TV cameras from covering the Chinese presentation.

Francis Delmonico, Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School who was appointed to the PAS, also defended Huang’s inclusion at the Vatican summit. “Dr. Huang’s understanding of the worldwide objection to that practice was the impetus for his relentless pursuit of the change in China culminating in the ban on the use of organs from the executed prisoner in January 2015,” he said in an email to The Guardian. But Delmonico testified under oath before a US Congressional committee last year that he could not assure them China’s use of prisoner organs had been completely eradicated.

Independent journalist Ethan Gutmann, together with David Kilgour and David Matas, published an extensive report last summer on China’s forced organ harvesting practices. Gutmann criticized Delmonico harshly for failing to hold China accountable for organ harvesting yet being “really dedicated” in helping China promote the idea of ethical advancement in transplantation. According to a recent report in the Epoch Times, Gutmann feels that without questioning China, Delmonico is corroborating with Huang in “burying history, burying the bodies so that they are never seen again.”

In attendance at the Vatican summit was former Health Minister Dr. Huang Jiefu, chairman of China’s National Organ Donation and Transplantation Committee and, as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the highest-ranking Chinese official to attend a Vatican event. Huang denied that he was acting as an official delegate at the conference but rather, as he told China’s state run Global Times, as a transplant expert.

Huang first came under fire in 2005 after a public demonstration of a complicated liver transplant in Xinjiang Province. The circumstances surrounding the transplant highlighted an extraordinary abudance of available livers in a country with hardly any voluntary organ donations at the time. The day before the transplant, Huang asked hospitals in Chongqing and Guangzhou for two extra matching livers. Both were delivered within 24 hours.

Under the weight of international pressure, Huang first acknowledged in 2005 that over 90 percent of organs used for transplant in China came from executed prisoners. Over the last decade, Huang has been the subject of prolonged and widespread criticism for his role in coordinating the government’s program of harvesting prisoner organs. It is notable that neither he nor anyone else in the Chinese government has ever admitted to forced live organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience, including Falun Gong practitioners.

Huang promised an end to the harvesting of prisoner organs as of January 2015, but no substantial evidence for this declaration has ever been provided. On the contrary, shortly after this ban was to take effect, the government reclassified organs from prisoners as equivalent to those voluntarily donated by private citizens.

At the PAS summit, Huang claimed that voluntary civilian organ donors have been China’s only “legitimate source” of organs used for transplantation since January 2015. He said the number of voluntary organ donors increased by 50 percent from 2015 to 2016 and was “very optimistic” China would outpace the US in terms of number of organ donors within the next five years. Meanwhile, China’s own CCTVNEWS indicated the country’s voluntary donors remain at just 0.6 donations per million (compared to Spain’s 37 per million).

Huang, in acknowledging the controversy of his inclusion at the summit exclaimed, “I am fully aware of the speculation about my participation in the summit,” citing “continuing concerns about the transplant activities.” Huang presented only four slides demonstrating China’s compliance with ethical procurement of organs. One presented the recent increase in organ donations while another detailed the Chinese regime’s cracking down on illicit transplantation activity.

Dr. Jacob Lavee, President of Israel’s Transplantation Society, was not assured by Huang’s presentation. He argued that an “appropriate international body with the power” to investigate the current situation in China must oversee surprise inspections and interview donor relatives. Lavee descried China’s use of living persons as organ sources saying, “The term ‘executed prisoners’ obscures the distinction between individuals sentenced to death by the Chinese criminal justice system … and prisoners of conscience killed extra judicially…This source of organs is excluded from discussion with Chinese officials, because discussing the matter is labeled ‘demonizing China’ with ‘fabricated evidence.’ As long as there is no honesty and accountability for what took place—the killing of innocents on demand—there can be no guarantee of actual ethical reform.”

Dr. Gabriel Danovitch Medical Director of the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program at the UCLA Medical Center also expressed grave concerns over China’s lack of transparency. He challenged the Chinese attendees to answer clearly and without obfuscation whether or not prisoners’ organs have ceased being used.

Huang conceded that “China is a big country, with 1.3 billion people, so sure, definitely, there is some violation of the law.” He could not refer to any law or provision banning the use of prisoner organs.

Huang’s colleague, Dr. Haibo Wang, head of the China Organ Transplant Response System, also attended the meeting and defended China’s efforts in combating local organ trafficking. He also stressed the sheer impossibility of controlling China’s transplant activity given the 1 million medical centers and 3 million licensed doctors. Haibo claimed that he and Huang have spent the past 12 years battling for reform of the transplantation sector and proposed that the WHO form a global task force to help crack down on illicit organ practices instead of singling out China for spot inspections.

Many may not be aware that the World Health Organization depends solely on individual countries to provide health information and statistics and does not conduct its own data analysis. The WHO introduces its Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, as coming from the People’s Republic of China although she was born in Hong Kong when it was under British rule. Dr. Chan has generally refrained from criticizing China’s practices and endorses the government’s attempts at reform of its transplantation program.

The Communist Party severed diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951, allowing worship only in official, state-sanctioned churches. Pope Francis and the Vatican hope to reach the 12 million Catholics in China, who are “currently divided between a government-run association and an unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.” According to the Catholic Herald, Pope Francis had planned to address the conference with hopes of repairing relations with Beijing, but cancelled due to the controversy over Huang’s attendance.

Lord David Alton, a longtime human rights advocate and prominent Catholic, also emphasized the importance of being direct with China. “I have encouraged the Pontifical Academy to consider inviting researchers whose findings suggest that forced organ harvesting continues on a scale far larger than was previously known,” he wrote. “It is right to try to engage with China on these issues, but it is vital that we do so critically and with transparency, and not in a way that simply provides China with a propaganda victory.”

At a press conference on February 7, Italian Senator Maurizio Romani, Vice-President of the Health Commission stated, “Right now, without free and independent inspection, there is no evidence that China has actually put an end to the cruel and illegal practice of forced organ harvesting, particularly from Falun Gong practitioners, and also Christians and other prisoners of conscience. Trying to deny the crime would be like trying to say that Nazism did not exist.” As a surgeon and member of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH), he co-sponsored Law No. 2937 banning organ trafficking that passed unanimously in November 2016.

In a press release several days before the summit, DAFOH called on those participating in the summit, including the WHO and The Transplantation Society, to demand that Huang and the Chinese government confirm that forcible organ harvesting from all prisoners of conscience, including Falun Gong, has ended and will not resume, announce publically the abolishment of the 1984 provisions making prisoner organ harvesting legal and publicizing any new legislation that explicitly prohibits organ harvesting from all prisoners.

Without transparency, verification of alleged reforms is impossible,” wrote DAFOH’s Executive Director Dr. Torsten Trey. “Accountability for past transplant abuse must not be ignored. Without accountability, there is no reason to trust the government of China’s claim that forced organ harvesting of prisoners has come to an end. Hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been blood tested and killed for organs in China. Yet, instead of investigating these urgent concerns, China’s alleged reforms are taken at face value without independent scrutiny.


The PAS summit in the international media.