DAFOH Round Table Event: Forced Organ Harvesting from Living People – Past, Present, Future

On June 9, 2022, five experts in the fields of transplant medicine, medical ethics, and forced organ harvesting came together for a round table discussion moderated by DAFOH Executive Director Torsten Trey, MD, PhD, to review the existing evidence, present their latest research, and identify steps to stop forced organ harvesting (FOH).

Dr. Jacob Lavee, Professor Emeritus of Surgery and Heart Transplantation at Tel Aviv University, recounted the case that started him on the path to researching and advocating against FOH. His patient, who had been on a waiting list for a heart transplant for over nine months, said that he was scheduled to have heart transplant surgery in China in two weeks’ time. Dr. Lavee recalled “I looked at him and asked him, ‘Are you listening to yourself? How can anyone promise you a heart transplant ahead of time, you do understand that for a heart transplant to take place, somebody has to die on the very same day?’”

When asked how he felt when he was first presented with evidence of FOH, Martin Elliott, Professor Emeritus of Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery at University College London and a member of the China Tribunal, said his reaction was horror, “The thought that I first felt when I heard about this was that this is some form of evil.” Dr. Elliot emphasized the importance of differentiating between the Chinese people and the Chinese government, “this is about the Chinese Communist Party’s control over a system…which has put millions of people into camps over a number of decades and continues to do so.” He noted “As a transplant surgeon myself, the question of complicity…seems to me to be of paramount importance for the medical professional.”

Building on Dr. Elliot’s remarks, Dr. Lavee asserted that part of the challenge in mobilizing the medical community is how difficult it is to believe such atrocities are taking place. “As a physician, a surgeon, and mainly as a transplant surgeon, you can hardly imagine that our colleagues are taking live people to the operating theatre and by extracting their organs, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, they actually execute them.”

Weldon Gilcrease, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Utah and Deputy Director of DAFOH, explained the connection between the persecution of Falun Gong and FOH, “you cannot have forced organ harvesting…without a large population of depersonalized, dehumanized, demonized human beings in China, that are essentially looked at as non-persons or sub-humans, not only by the community at large and by the government, but also by the medical community.” After listing the evidence indicating Falun Gong as the primary FOH victim group, Dr. Gilcrease also noted that forced organ harvesting would not be possible “without a government that is organizing this awful persecution.”

Dr. Trey asked Dr. Lavee to explain the results of his most recent research on FOH published in the American Journal of Transplantation where he and fellow researcher Matthew Robertson found evidence in Chinese medical papers that the procedures breached the dead donor rule which states that organ procurement must not commence until the donor is both dead and formally pronounced so and by the same token that procurement of organs must not cause the death of the donor. “We have found in this computational text analysis more than 70 papers in which the authors by themselves admit that the organ procurement surgery has started before brain death has been formally declared,before the apnea test has been declared, because they mentioned that the intubation of these patients has been done only after the beginning of the organ procurement, which means that these surgeons are actually executing those patients, those prisoners. And by their own admission, during these years, they can only be prisoners and the surgeons have become the actual executioners of these patients… This is a final proof that Chinese transplant physicians are actually taking active part in executing these patients.”

One topic that several of the round table speakers had personal experience with was the issue of censorship. Dr. Gilcrease’s attempts to have his university hospital learn more about FOH to prevent complicity were halted by senior leadership, not because they doubted that FOH was taking place, but out of fear of losing the income generated by training doctors from China. When Dr. Lavee invited David Matas, one of the lead investigators in the first research released on FOH in 2006, to address the Israel Society of Transplantation annual meeting, the Chinese embassy, via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had the Ministry of Health ask Dr. Lavee to cancel the talk. “I told them right away, forget about it, David Matas is going to present.”

David Beyda, Chair and Professor of the Department of Bioethics and Medical Humanism, and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, explained that in additional to institutional censorship, “there was also personal censorship…in terms of reputation.” He asserted that “ethically, is a very significant issue; to personally censor yourself, even though you know what is happening is wrong…the more complicit you become.”

The speakers agreed that medical associations have a responsibility to break the silence. Dr. Alejandro Centurion, neurologist and member of the DAFOH board of directors, expressed the importance of the American Medical Association (AMA) taking-up the issue. “Doctors need to know about this information. I can’t convey how few physicians and nurses really know about this about these atrocities.” Dr. Gilcrease concurred stating, “less than 10% of the entire medical community actually knows what forced organ harvesting is. And even less than that…has any kind of understanding of the [China] Tribunal or the massive amount of data that’s out there.” For Dr. Centurion, the AMA is the answer, noting that legislation in both Britain and Canada came about after their respective medical associations condemned FOH, “medical societies need to be our voice. [The AMA] needs to speak for all the community of medical doctors in United States.”

Dr. Lavee sits on the ethics committee for the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation, which revised its ethics statement in May to prohibit research, presentations and papers coming from China. Dr. Lavee is optimistic that such actions can have an impact. “No Chinese transplant surgeon who’s doing heart or lung transplantation can either submit papers to the Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation, no such surgeon or physician can come to the annual meeting of the society. As we’ve seen in the past, such an academic boycott is a very important, it’s a very powerful tool for us as physicians to exert some pressure over our colleagues in China.”

Dr. Lavee noted that “in 1962, when the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem for his part of exterminating the Jews during the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt, the American German philosopher, termed the coin, ‘the banality of evil,’ as expressing what’s the Nazi were doing. It’s chilling to see that the banality of evil, which we thought we [would] see never again, is taking place for the past 30 years in China and even to the very this day.”

Dr. Trey ended the round table discussion by stating definitively that FOH from living prisoners of conscience “can by no means or excuse be accepted in today’s global community, and every doctor, and every individual, has to make a decision. ‘Do I want to live in a world where a government can arbitrarily kill innocent people for their organs or do I speak up now?’ I think it is time to break the silence and National Medical Association’s should take the lead to end this atrocity.”