The issue of harvesting organs from political prisoners in China to supply the country’s more than 160 transplant centres is not just controversial, but explosive.
So it is a bit odd that an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics published online last year by two authors from Macau and one from Australia had to be amended extensively.
After the publication of “China to halt using executed prisoners’ organs for transplants: a step in the right direction in medical ethics”, what was described as “a new law” became a “regulation” and a “guideline”. Consent from “the prisoners themselves or their family members” became consent only from the prisoners. And a crucial reference changed from an official government document to a government press release.
Was this due to carelessness, or inexperience, or, as a response in the JME suggests, “smoke and mirrors”? The bitterly critical article was written by six authors associated with Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH), a group which supports the Falun Gong, a persecuted movement in China. Thousands of its members are said to be political prisoners there.
The government has acknowledged (after years of denying it) that organs were being taken from executed prisoners. A recent DAFOH report makes a strong case that the mysterious gap between the number of executions in China and the number of transplanted organs was made up by harvesting the organs of Falun Gong members. However, the Chinese government is notoriously secretive and there is no smoking gun to prove the allegations.
The DAFOH authors of the JME article are calling for support from the international community:
What is ethically disturbing is the almost complete silence on this issue. Clearly, if China indeed murders innocent citizens for their organs, it would seek to conceal the crime. But why does the international community, including transplant doctors, medical ethicists and journal editors, remain complicit in this silence? This may in part be due to obfuscation about the term ‘executed prisoners’, which is taken by many to mean prisoners executed after a judicial process. In reality, in China, ‘executed prisoner’ means the killing of a person under detention by the state, irrespective of his/her criminal status.
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