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Vatican conference challenges China on organ transplant ethics

A Vatican conference on organ trafficking has put pressure on China to more closely monitor its organ transplants. China operated a program under which many transplanted organs came from executed persons.

At a Vatican conference on organ trafficking, China's top official on transplantation said on Tuesday that the country was working on improving the way it handled organ transplants.

"China is mending its ways and constantly improving its national organ donation and transplantation systems," said Dr. Huang Jiefu, the director of China's transplant program.

China has been strongly criticized for harvesting organs from executed prisoners. Huang first publicly acknowledged the program in 2005, and later revealed that up to 90 percent of organ transplants from deceased donors were from executed people.

While the practice was officially ended in 2015, it is unclear whether China actually stopped the program. Dr. Haibo Wang, a colleague of Huang's, said it was impossible to fully oversee transplants in China with a million medical centers and three million doctors operating in the country.

In response, Dr. Jacob Lavee, president of Israel's transplant society, said the World Health Organization (WHO) should be allowed to conduct unannounced inspections and interview donors in China. "As long as there is no accountability for what took place…there can be no guarantee for ethical reform," said Lavee.

Huang countered by saying there were dozens of arrests and 18 medical institutions had been closed. He added that the reforms were still new and required patience.

"China's transplantation reform has been an arduous journey," said Huang. "As long as we move ahead, China will be the largest country for organ transplants in an undisputed ethical way in a few years."

Unwelcome guests

The advocacy group Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) criticized the Vatican for inviting guests from China, saying the goals of the conference would be compromised by their attendance "if China is allowed back into the community of nations without providing evidence that it has truly abandoned its cruel and illegal practice of forcibly harvesting organs." 

Other critics sent a letter to Pope Francis saying the Chinese attendance amounted to whitewashing its previous practices. However, the Vatican stood firm its decision, saying it could encourage reform in the country.

"Are they doing any illegal transplantation of organs in China? We can't say. But we want to strengthen the movement for change," said chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo.

kbd/jm (AP, Reuters)

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