The White House calls for an end to unethical organ harvesting in China
In response to a popular “We The People” petition against forced organ harvesting in China, the White House announces strong opposition to organ harvesting from executed prisoners with plans to monitor the worsening deterioration of human rights and religious freedom in China.
On January 31, 2015, the White House responded to a petition that originated in December, 2012 on its official website calling for the President to investigate and publicly condemn organ harvesting from Falun Gong believers in China.
In an unprecedented statement of support and intention The White House has acknowledged that unethical organ harvesting from “executed prisoners,” and severe human rights abuses of spiritual and religious groups, are an unacceptable reality in China. Despite China’s promises to abolish the ongoing practice, the U.S., “Will continue to monitor the situation and actions that Chinese authorities take to fulfill the commitment.”
Chinese officials have made repeated announcements to end organ harvesting from executed prisoners since 2007, and the latest promise offers a new deadline of January 1, 2015. Yet, China’s promises remain non-committal and are lacking in ensuring free, voluntary organ donations.
As welcome as the announcement is to the global medical community and human rights advocates, the White House response did not address a central concern: the forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in Chinese prisons, forced labor camps and military hospitals. Although the White House voices grave concern for the persecuted spiritual group Falun Gong, it falls short of identifying that it is Falun Gong practitioners who are reportedly the primary group of organ harvesting in China. Persecuted and socially vilified by the millions, they are imprisoned for their beliefs and subjected to implausible, costly and systematic medical diagnostics in forced labor camps. Advocates and investigators have been calling on the UN for years to take action and investigate on the ground in China.
Western media falls for semantic twist in China’s sham pledge to end organ harvesting by January 1, 2015
The most recent attempt by China to placate opposition came on December 3, 2014, when Huang Jiefu, director of the China Organ Donation Committee and former vice-minister of health, commanded major media attention and announced that after January 1, 2015 only “voluntarily donated organs” could be used for transplantation. Central to this devious plan is that prisoners will not be forced to donate their organs but that they now have the “right” to voluntarily donate their organs as ordinary citizens, a practice that is not what it is purported to be in China.
Conveniently labeling a prisoner a “citizen” implies that free will underlies the altruistic organ donation by prisoners who, due to their persecution and incarceration, lack any degree of self-determination. Few media caught on to this semantic manipulation. British national daily, The Guardian, recognized and reported about the misleading character of the pledge. Fortunately, some medical organizations recognize the play on words as an ethical loophole. The Declaration of Istanbul Custodian Group published a statement, the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation addressed the problem in its Links newsletter and Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting expressed its concerns via a press release.
International ethical standards in medicine state that prisoners are not in the position to voluntarily donate, free of coercion, their organs, nor should they be reclassified as ordinary citizens whose organs are then added to the “voluntary” organ bank, along with everyone else’s, where the source might then be laundered to hide an ongoing reliance on death row prisoners as a captive organ bank.
Death row prisoners in China are usually executed within a few days of sentencing without hope of reprieve, and face extreme mental and emotional distress. With a rope around one’s neck, coercion cannot be excluded.
In 2012, the World Medical Association, the Chinese Medical Association being a member, stated:
“In jurisdictions where the death penalty is practised, executed prisoners must not be considered as organ and/or tissue donors.
While there may be individual cases where prisoners are acting voluntarily and free from pressure, it is impossible to put in place adequate safeguards to protect against coercion in all cases.”
The redefining of death row prisoners as “citizens” with the right to donate their organs bypasses ethical guidelines altogether. This is not accidental, but rather a political ploy once tested in an interview in March 2014 , when Huang Jiefu stated that “donated organs from executed prisoners” will be entered in a formal computerized allocation process. Western media optimism took the promise at face value. A concerted response by the medical community failed to rally in 2014, with dire consequences: a semantic backdoor for the laundering of organs now hides behind the welcomed announcement.
In addition, despite half hearted media coverage in China, attempts to build an altruistic voluntary organ donation system have repeatedly failed for years due to cultural taboos against organ removal. Even today, organ donations from the Chinese public are mostly garnered via the Red Cross Society of China—which is not affiliated with the International Red Cross—by advertising monetary reimbursement worth an annual salary to the family members of terminally ill patients. The practice of the Red Cross Society of China clearly violates the Principles 5 and 7 of the WHO Guiding Principles on Human Cell, Tissue and Organ Transplantation.
Two critical factors shed further doubt on Chinas credibility to make good on the promise to end organ harvesting
First, it is important to mention that despite the announcement of a complete end of the practice by Huang Jiefu, the official websites of the Chinese Health Ministry, and other government platforms, have not reported the January, 2015 deadline. The National Health and Family Planning Commission of the PRC also did not make any official announcements regarding the alleged end of the practice.
Second, a 1984 law that permits the use of organs from executed prisoners has not been repealed, rendering the current announcement merely a statement by a single official, and not a solid guarantee that the Chinese government will follow through.
At this point, any celebration about the announced promise is premature. With the change of the new terminology, it should be expected that from now on China will report that organs come exclusively from “voluntary citizen donors,” while executed prisoners organs cannot be excluded with any degree of confidence. The WHO Guiding Principles demanding traceability and transparency are not viable in China where there is no rule of law governing ethics in transplant medicine.
Global medical community fails to respond adequately
The question now is whether the medical community will continue to fail to recognize such semantic tricks and manipulations. In 2007, when the Chinese Medical Association pledged to the World Medical Association to end the practice, and again in 2013 when the Hangzhou resolution celebrated the end by asking the directors of the transplant centers to sign and refrain from using prisoner organs, the international medical community danced around China’s promises, unquestioned and unchallenged. Every once in a while, after a previous tactical move loses its deceptive power, China announces a new step to the world, exploiting the hope of western doctors without completely and immediately ending the barbaric practice.
The verification crosscheck of this new pledge to end the practice started just a few days after its announcement. On December 19, 2014, Huang Jiefu approached Taiwan, proposing to establish a cross-strait organ exchange platform for transplant organs between the two countries. The reason for this proposal was that such an organ exchange platform would “[enable] Taiwanese patients to get transplants without having to travel” to China.
Yet, it is implausible that China would offer to supply transplant organs to Taiwan, while at home 300,000 patients—other references speak of up to 1.5 million people—are on the wait list for only 10,000 transplants a year per China’s own report. A dramatic decrease in transplant organs is also expected after the abolition of organ sourcing from executed prisoners at this time, making such a generous proposal to Taiwan even more dubious. Taiwanese physicians adamantly refused the offer.
More crosscheck questions need to be asked
Will China abolish the 1984 law that permits the organ harvesting from executed prisoners?
Will the WHO Guiding Principle 10 demanding traceability of the organ sources be met?
Will China acknowledge the organ procurement from prisoners of conscience?
While China frequently points to a potential for more transparency in the allocation of transplant organs via their computerized organ allocation system (COTRS), it needs to be mentioned that there is a lack of transparency on the organ procurement side. China does not have a public reporting system for the source of organs, making the COTRS a whitewash stopover for transplant organs. There is simply no accountability. The key examination lies in assessing traceability. Without outside scrutiny, China continues to sidestep the WHO’s Guiding Principle 10.
Prisoners of conscience in China as forced organ source must not be ignored.
Without acknowledging that prisoners of conscience, like criminal prisoners bound for execution, are subject to organ harvesting, China’s announcement remains a half empty cup. Without accountability there is little hope that China will stop using this profitable and “indispensable” organ source. To announce an end of organ sourcing from executed prisoners without addressing prisoners of conscience is tantamount to pure deception. There will be no sigh of relief. Instead, there is an increased risk that the loss of the executed criminal prisoner group as organ source might now be compensated for with an increase of organs sourced from the much larger prisoner of conscience population.
Due to the severity of this ethical violation, uncompromised scrutiny and transparency are needed immediately. President Obama’s statement of concern and plan to monitor the organ harvesting and human rights crimes in China will be ongoing and the Chinese government has given the world no reason to believe it will stop. To see a definitive end of the practice the U.S. will need to take an effective and practical approach that includes protecting Americans from unwitting collusion. With several congressional hearings, the unanimous bipartisan passage of House Resolution 281 in the Foreign Affairs Committee in July 2014, and statements by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) and Department of State reports on China’s organ harvesting practices, concrete legislative reforms by Israel and Spain and limiting training of Chinese surgeons by Australian transplant centers, the U.S. is expected to take a more serious approach and prioritize this issue. A swift and resolute response to this unprecedented crime against humanity will save thousands of lives.
The Hangzhou Resolution in 2013 asked the directors of 169 transplant centers in China to voluntarily refrain from using organs from executed prisoners. Under global criticism, thirty-eight directors signed, the others did not, making it a majority vote to continue using organs from executed prisoners.
Most concerning is that the responsibility for curtailing the practice was shifted to the medical profession. If the Chinese government, which under the lead of the Ministry of Health proposed the Hangzhou resolution, was genuinely interested in ending the practice, why did the government not simply abolish the 1984 law, making it immediately illegal to harvest organs from executed prisoners? The omission to do so at the conference in Hangzhou, 2013, reveals China’s true colors: it was not the goal to completely halt the practice. Only 25% of the transplant hospital directors signed, which is a politically correct percentage of denial in a single party country, but no serious expression to abolish the practice. But, rather, the aim was to continue the practice, as indicated by the latest announcement in December 2014 (under different terms and terminology) and undoubtedly with the cross straight organ exchange with Taiwan. The Hangzhou resolution clearly succeeded in buying time to placate the west.
The White House responds to petitions that receive enough signatures and comply with the published rules, according to the We The People site’s FAQ, although it may decline if a petition addresses “certain procurement, law enforcement, adjudicatory, or similar matters properly within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies, federal courts, or state and local government.”