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As New Regulations Limit Organ Transplants from Executed Chinese Prisoners; South Carolina Allows Organ Donations by Prisoners

In November 2006, China finally admitted that most of the human organs used to satisfy the burgeoning number of transplant-seeking foreigners came from executed prisoners.

?Apart from a small portion of traffic victims, most of the organs from cadavers are from executed prisoners,? Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu told a summit of transplant doctors. ?The current organ donation shortfall can?t meet demand.?

Jiefu?s statement was the first official acknowledgment that organs harvested from executed prisoners were the lifeblood of China?s prosperous transplant trade ?something that human rights activists and death penalty opponents have been saying for years. Since the 1980s, reports have surfaced alleging that foreigners were waiting less than two weeks for an organ donor after arriving in China, and that some prisoners were even ?executed to order? to match blood types.

Most of the organs went to wealthy foreigners willing to pay hefty sums for the transplants. In 2005, a British reporter was asked to broker organs to transplant patients in Great Britain; the asking price was $54,000 for a kidney and $84,000 for a liver. Other foreigners seeking Chinese organs come from Japan and the United States.

A Hong Kong resident identified only as Lee in a Reuters news article said he paid 260,000 yuan (about $34,380) for a liver transplant in China. ?The hospital has connections with a lot of prisons,? he said. ?Mine came from an executed prisoner from Heilongjiang.?

Jiefu?s announcement came weeks after China took steps to stem international criticism of its organ transplant market by instituting more stringent oversight of death penalty cases. The increased scrutiny, which requires the country?s highest court to affirm death sentences, could reduce the number of executions by a third, legal experts estimate.
China doesn?t disclose how many prisoners it puts to death each year, but Amnesty International estimates that at least 1,770 prisoners were executed in 2005. According to some activists, however, the number could be as high as 8,000-10,000.

One prominent Chinese transplant doctor, Chen Zhonghua, confirmed that large numbers of transplant surgeries were being performed in his country. According to Chen, Chinese physicians transplanted 8,102 kidneys, 3,741 livers and 80 hearts in 2005. It is estimated that more than 9 out of 10 organs transplanted in China came from executed prisoners.

This is changing, however, as the Chinese government has moved to impose restrictions on organ transplants. On May 1, 2007, new transplant regulations went into effect ? including a ban on the sale of organs for profit, consent being required before organs are harvested for transplants, and the implementation of standardized procedures at hospitals licensed to perform transplant operations.

Some human rights groups said the new policies didn?t go far enough. ?[T]he regulations are no substitute for an open and transparent system. It leaves vague areas under secrecy, such as the crucial issue of the provenance of the organs, which we know are through judicial executions,? stated Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with the Hong Kong office of Human Rights Watch.

Bequelin noted that consent from prisoners was ?virtually meaningless.? ?We?re talking about prisoners who are going to be executed. They can be subjected to all sorts of pressure to sign these consents,? he said.
In October 2007, the Chinese Medical Association (CMA) announced new rules to ensure that ethical guidelines are followed in organ transplants, including a policy that prohibits transplants from prisoners except for members of the prisoners? immediate family. According to Dr. Chen Zhonghua, who serves as deputy director of the CMA?s organ transplant sub-committee, the percentage of organ transplants from executed prisoners dropped significantly in 2007. The viability of organ harvesting in China may also be endangered as the country moves towards lethal injection, rather than a single gunshot to the head, as the primary means of execution. The lethal chemicals used for execution by injection render organs unusable for transplants. The other alternative is to harvest the organs prior to execution.

Organ transplants from prisoners are not restricted to China. In March 2007 it was reported that the South Carolina legislature was considering a bill (S.481) that would give prisoners a sentence reduction if they donated organs or bone marrow. The legislation, approved by the Senate Corrections and Penology Subcommittee in April, would cut a paltry 180 days off a prisoner?s sentence for an organ or tissue donation. Debate was postponed pending a legal analysis to determine whether the bill violated federal law, which prohibits giving ?valuable consideration? to organ donors.

The legislation, establishing an organ and tissue donation program for prisoners, was passed and signed into law on June 4, 2007. The sentence reduction incentive was not included in the final version of the bill, and South Carolina?s prison organ and tissue donation program is strictly voluntary.

Sources: Los Angeles Times,,, Reuters, Associated Press,, China Daily,

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