The 2015 European Society for Organ Transplantation (ESOT) Biennial Congress in Brussels
Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting presented an exhibit at the prestigious ESOT Congress in September on the relationship between forced organ harvesting, organ trafficking, and transplant tourism. We elaborated on the secrecy surrounding China’s transplant medicine that was the highlight and focus of discussion and debate at this European transplant professional’s event. Almost 3500 medical professionals attended the congress.
Over the three days of the congress medical professionals from all over the world visited the DAFOH booth. They came from Sudan, India, Tunisia, Israel, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Philippines, Oman, Ireland, USA, Singapore, Turkey, Portugal, Pakistan, Sweden, Belgium, United Kingdom and China. The majority of those who visited the booth were not aware of the catastrophic extent of organ harvesting in China. While many attendees expressed the belief that the use of organs from executed prisoners had stopped with China’s announcements at the beginning of this year, others doubted the announcements right away, distrusting the Chinese government’s lack of transparency and frequently censored declarations.
Many attendees confided that they either personally have, or know about, patients who are still going abroad to China for organ transplants. One delegate explained that he was in India at the time when transplant tourism was at its peak. He now works in Singapore, and on a weekly basis sees his patients go to China for transplants! Knowing about the unacceptable ethical breach of the practice he felt at a loss over what to do about it. He expressed that patients do not ask him if they should go, but take fate into their own hands and fly to China, not considering where the organs come from or if the organs were procured according to ethical standards. It is unclear if patients—often profoundly ill and in despair—are fully informed about the source of the organs or whether they just do not want to know. Ethical medicine is the foundation for the best medical practices, and this emerging Wild West of transplant medicine, is a market where prisoners of conscience are killed on demand for their organs.
Few delegates were aware of the difference between commonly known organ trafficking and the China-specific forced organ harvesting. Many thought of the situation in China as similar to worldwide organ trafficking where poor people were offered money for a kidney or a lobe of the liver. This form also occurs in China, but for more than three decades, with the specific permission and implementation by the government, organs have been harvested on demand from detained prisoners of conscience who are frequently medically tested, and categorized as a source of readily available organs. Ethnic and spiritual groups, the Falun Gong in particular, followed by Uighurs, Tibetans and Christians, are the main targets of campaigns of persecution against them ending in death in detention.
An Irani delegate was moved to tears when she understood what was happening in China. This is not uncommon when bringing the problem to awareness in the field—many of the doctors were shocked and in dismay.
We also noticed misconceptions about China’s newly promoted public organ donation system, COTRS. Many attendees were not aware of the specifics. Free and voluntary donation is rare in China and the majority of the “donated” organs are now organized by The Red Cross Society of China which recruits and trains hundreds of medical professionals to approach dying patients—potential donors—in hospitals and to pay their relatives financial incentives worth an annual salary to switch off life support systems to ensure that they can salvage viable organs.
A telling example of a medical absurdity was told by a delegate from the Philippines who was most concerned by the fact that she had heard reports of children being found dead in the streets in China with organs missing and sometimes money in their mouths. She was horrified to learn in depth about organ harvesting in China.
Some doctors at the congress said they considered using organs from prisoners condemned to death as appropriate so as not to “waste” precious tissues that could be used to save lives. The lack of truthful and validated information on Chinese law, the abusive inner functioning of Chinese detention centers, the economics of the Chinese transplant industry, and the western debate over how to obtain organs with limited sources complicate the debate and distance it from the most important issues. Without endorsing the true source of organs, abiding by ethical guidelines, and transparency, Dr Torsten Trey, DAFOH executive director, believes that, “Killing human beings for their organs in order to provide transplantation for others is not only a crime against humanity but also incompatible with the mission of medicine and leads transplant medicine as well as medicine in general ad absurdum. Now it is up to the medical profession to react.”
“Killing human beings for their organs in order to provide transplantation for others is not only a crime against humanity but also incompatible with the mission of medicine and leads transplant medicine as well as medicine in general ad absurdum. Now it is up to the medical profession to react.”
Only two of the doctors that visited our booth said that they had never heard of China’s transplant abuse before. Other doctors informed us that they already knew about forced organ harvesting because they received information from Falun Gong practitioners at other medical and transplant congresses in the USA.
There is a severe shortage of public information on the state of the problem in China and about the risks patients and doctors are taking by arranging unethical transplants. The fact that patients with money are entitled to take their lives in their hands and independently decide to engage in transplant tourism, with or without the consent or knowledge of their medical doctor, and going to China for a “quick” transplant arranged by middlemen is unprecedented-and waiting times in China are from a week to 30 days for any organ!
The HOTT Project
The central message at the ESOT Transplant Congress focused on organ trafficking in 2015 and the latest insights. Advocates of the HOTT Project, a three year program financed by the European Commission to establish baseline research and develop guideline recommendations to all the different collaborators fighting the problem, presented and discussed the modus operandi of organ harvesting and trafficking networks. In tackling organ trafficking a prosecutor’s perspective was that transplant professionals should breach their oath of secrecy and confidentiality. The speakers discussed the different aspects of two different prosecuted cases of organ trafficking in Kosovo and Israel, and presented research about organ trafficking by the medical profession in the Netherlands.
One delegate we talked with was surprised that DAFOH was present at the congress because the subject is so sensitive within the transplant profession. The tremendous attendance at the HOTT Project Conference indicates that the medical profession as a whole is more and more concerned with the legal implications of colluding with patients going abroad for transplants.
In the case of organ harvesting in China, the HOTT Project offers no direct solutions, but the group’s 5-point report and professional recommendations provide a legal framework to identify, report and legally attack organ trafficking networks, empower doctors, protect patients and protect living organ donors. https://hottproject.com
Three commissioners from the European Research, Organ and Blood Commissions visited the DAFOH booth and gained new understandings. The European parliament has clearly stated its position against organ harvesting in China and on organ trafficking. European countries are following this position with 14 countries having signed the European Convention to help stop organ transplant tourism worldwide.
Most medical professionals at the conference were not fully aware of the scope and reality of organ harvesting in China and they believed that China had stopped using organs from executed prisoners as announced, or neglected to disclose harvesting from prisoners of conscience. Few had given the announcement serious reflexion and a central question arose from our discussions: How can a country—mostly dependent on executed prisoners—fully switch to a voluntary organ donation system overnight? Given that it just began 2-3 years ago, it is implausible to yield 2,000-3000 organ donors within a year. Success to that degree remains questionable due to long held cultural beliefs in China and the people’s fear of corruption.
Attendees sought answers to many disturbing questions: What should surgeons do with these patients? What is the legal standing for treating a patient pre or post transplant that has participated (perhaps innocently) directly, or as an accessory, in the murder of a perfectly fit and healthy person who has not volunteered to donate their organs? The mere fact that a patient has paid for an organ is a criminal offense.
But, the situation is also changing throughout the world and certain organizations are discussing this issue and planning solutions. The Paired Kidney Donation organization, also present at the ESOT Congress, was aware of the work of DAFOH and said that they were going to plan to include it in their general information.
The TPM-DTI foundation was also at the congress. This group organizes and offers courses in organ procurement and on establishing voluntary organ donation programs and could be an important means of preventing further abuse by preparing governmental organizations and medical professionals to combat transplant tourism and organ trafficking.