Organ transplantation is a therapy that saves the lives of millions of people and is one of the greatest achievements of contemporary medicine. Yet, a limited supply of donor organs and a growing demand for transplants have fueled the global organ trafficking industry, which exploits impoverished, disadvantaged, and persecuted members of society as sources of organs to be acquired by wealthy transplant tourists.
Although this practice is prevalent in many nations, the situation in China is especially alarming. China is the only nation in the world that harvests organs from executed prisoners of conscience for organ trafficking on an industrial scale. This method is known as organ harvesting under duress. To comprehend coerced organ harvesting, consider the following hypothetical scenario: a Canadian patient with end-stage heart disease requires a life-saving cardiac transplant.
Doctors in the United States inform the patient that he must be placed on a waiting list until a matching donor dies under proper circumstances. This procedure may take weeks, months, or even years to complete. The patient then locates a transplant program in China that can schedule a compatible donor cardiac transplant weeks in advance.
This poses several crucial questions. Heart transplants can only come from deceased donors, so how can the hospital match this patient weeks in advance with a potential “deceased” donor? How did the hospital locate this organ donor? How do they determine when a donor will pass away? Has the donor given permission to harvest their organs?
The responses to these questions are quite upsetting. China utilizes prisoners of conscience as organ donors to supply patients with appropriate transplants. These inmates or “donors” are executed, and their organs are extracted against their will for use in the lucrative transplant industry.
As transplant nephrologists and medical professionals, we endeavor to educate colleagues, institutions, patients, and the general public about organ trafficking, particularly forced organ harvesting. We collaborate with organizations such as Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting and International Coalition to Stop Transplant Abuse in China, which have performed significant work in this field for more than a decade.
As per an article released by McMaster University, China has the world’s second-largest transplant program at now. During the early 2000s, the number of transplant procedures in China climbed dramatically without a matching increase in voluntary organ donors, which raised suspicions about the origin of the organs.
During this period of tremendous transplant growth, the Chinese government arrested, harassed, and executed a great number of practitioners of the Buddhist Qi gong practice known as Falun Gong. Similarly, China launched a mass imprisonment, surveillance, sterilization, and forced labor campaign against the Uyghur ethnic community in Xinjiang in 2017.
In 2006-2007, the work of two international human rights attorneys, David Kilgour and David Matas, which were later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, brought attention to the issue of forced organ harvesting. The China Tribunal, led by human rights attorney Sir Geoffrey Nice, was established in 2019 to investigate charges of coerced organ harvesting objectively.
The Tribunal investigated several lines of evidence, including as transplant statistics, medical testing of incarcerated inmates, recorded phone calls to transplant hospitals, and the testimony of surgeons and detainees. The final decision was announced in March of 2020 and “proved beyond a reasonable doubt” that China has used executed prisoners of conscience as a source of organs for transplants for decades.
Recent evidence reveals that the inhumane practice of forced organ harvesting has persisted despite claims by Chinese transplant regulators that considerable reforms have been implemented since 2015. The American Journal of Transplantation, the premier transplant journal in the world, published a study in April stating that brain death was not notified in many organ retrievals in China and that the true cause of death was the removal of the donor’s crucial organs.
In other words, these inmates were being executed through organ harvesting for transplantation purposes. The International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation issued a policy statement in June that bans submissions “containing organs or tissue from human donors in the People’s Republic of China.”
Sadly, the utilization of unethical medical techniques on underprivileged people is not a new phenomenon. In concentration camps, the Nazis conducted horrifying experiments on Jewish victims. Soviet psychiatrists coined the phrase sluggish schizophrenia to stigmatize political dissidents, so depriving them of their civic rights, job, and credibility. In the Tuskegee study, American researchers examined the impact of untreated syphilis in African Americans.
For decades, China has executed prisoners of conscience and harvested their organs for transplantation. Transplant physicians, medical experts, and the international community must increase awareness and exert pressure on governments, organizations, and hospitals to act.