Olympic jitters behind China's organ pledge

Mary-Anne Toy Herald Correspondent in Beijing
October 10, 2007
 

CHINA has conceded that international pressure before the 2008 Olympic Games is behind its latest pledge to crack down on illegal organ transplants.

State media yesterday reported that the Chinese Medical Association, which is a semi-government body, would require its 500,000 member doctors to stop harvesting organs from executed prisoners, even with the prisoner's consent, except when needed for a close relative of the prisoner.

The agreement was reached with the World Medical Association during the peak body's meeting in Copenhagen last Friday, but uncertainty remains about when the pledge will take effect.

China has long been accused by international critics of harvesting organs from executed prisoners without consent, but has always denied doing so.

Voluntary organ donation rates are low in China and the number of transplant operations vastly exceeds the number of registered donors.

Unscrupulous hospitals are also suspected of illegally taking organs from road accident victims and other dead patients to fuel a booming international and domestic market in transplants.

The Chinese Medical Association's vice-chairman, Chen Zhonghua, has attributed the latest pledge to "huge international pressure" particularly in the lead-up to the Olympics.

"It is still unclear as regards the timetable, when this will be implemented, but it is the first time the Chinese side has made such a promise," Professor Chen said.

"China is worried that if it doesn't take a stance on this, some countries may use this issue as a pretext to boycott the Games," he told the South China Morning Post.

Professor Chen said the number of transplants from executed prisoners had dropped significantly this year, while the number of live donations from relatives, and voluntary donations, had increased.

Liu Zhi, of the medical association's international department, told the Herald his organisation's pledge had no legal effect, but he hoped it would influence doctors and government decision-making.

Mr Liu, who attended the Copenhagen meeting, also defended China's organ transplants industry as "clean and regulated".

Xia Xueluan, a sociology professor from Peking University, said China's tightening of organ transplants was not just due to Western pressure, but reflected the Government's emphasis on more humane, people-oriented policies.

The State Council, China's cabinet, issued a new law in May prohibiting all organisations and individuals from trading human organs in any form and specifying all donations must have the consent of the donors.

The medical association pledge goes further, by specifying that even if the prisoner consented, only that prisoner's immediate family could have the organs transplanted.

China has also moved to reduce its use of the death penalty, another contentious issue.

In the past year China has restored to the Supreme People's Court the sole right to approve all death sentences, ending a 23-year-old practice of allowing provincial courts alone to authorise executions.

While China doesn't officially release death sentence figures, the numbers appear to have reduced since 2001, when Amnesty International estimated that China executed at least 2500 people, and issued more than 4000 death sentences.

Amnesty said China executed at least 1770 people in 2005, about 80 per cent of the world's total, but said the true number may be much higher.