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Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Death row organs

Hans Sproß
March 9, 2012

The Chinese vice minister of the Ministry of Health, Huang Jiefu, has announced in Beijing that the most important source for organ donations are death row inmates.


In China, as in many other countries, there is a considerable imbalance between the number of organ donators and people in need of transplants. Each year around a million patients are in need of a kidney transplant and around 30,000 are desperate for a new liver. Many of these new organs are taken from executed prisoners, of whom, according to Amnesty International, around 1,000 die each year.

This practice is the result of a provision from October 1984 promulgated by the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate and four ministries. The regulations allow for the use of organs taken from executed inmates in three instances: In the case of a conviction without relatives; if the prisoners volunteer to be donors; and, if the family of the executed person provides its consent.

An operation
Organs are in high demandImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Inmates as organ incubators

But using death row cells as organ farms seems inappropriate, according to Sarah Schafer of Amnesty International. She said she was doubtful that people on death row actually give their consent to the operations. She also told AFP that Huang's latest statement suggested “nothing much has changed,” adding that the lack of progress was quite “chilling.”

In the past, the death penalty was administered by gunshot. Today, lethal injection is the most common practice. The latter is beneficial for such purposes as retrieving organs, as they remain intact.

Liao Tienchi is an expert on the Chinese legal system and fears there might be dodgy activity going on during the executions of potential donors.

"In order to get the organs from the prisoners being executed, they have to cheat during the lethal injection. The prisoners don't know whether they are getting a lethal injection or just anesthesia."

New programs

In August of 2009, 10 provinces introduced an organ donating program. Even according to official figures, the proportion of organs taken from people put to death is too large.

According to People's Daily Online, a Chinese online newspaper, Huang announced at this year's People's Political Consultative Conference an organ donation system to be set up around September. The set-up will grant the Red Cross Society of China authority to run the program.

A mean-looking doctor stands behind a sign reading 'human organ for transplant'
Activists fear death row inmates are not asked for their consent to donateImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Liao Tienchi is calling on citizens to donate their organs voluntarily, referring to the system in the US, where donators are identified after death by labeling on their drivers' licenses. "That way the organs can be retrieved very quickly and passed on to patients in need."

In China, though, donating organs runs contrary to tradition, according to which, the entire body should be buried intact after death. Many people are also skeptical, as they believe that only the rich profit from the organ trade. Liao believes that transparency is thus of vital importance. Transparency, and also active participation from the public and from the judiciary. "The situation can only improve step by step if there is public and just management of it."

Autorin: Ying Yang / sb
Editor: Shamil Shams

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