Health

Kiwis Seeking Chinese Transplants Face Dark Possibility of Stolen Organs

While China says it's stopped harvesting organs from prisoners, researchers say there's not enough transparency to be sure.
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Health researchers are concerned Kiwis travelling to access organ transplants overseas could receive organs nonconsensually harvested from Chinese prisoners, including prisoners of conscience.

While the number of Kiwis donating organs has increased, at any given time there around 500 New Zealanders waiting for a transplant. An Auckland University academic has raised concerns that with some turning to overseas transplants, New Zealanders need to reckon with the prospect that organs from China may not be donated willingly.

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Dr Phillipa Malpas, an associate professor focused on ethics in medicine at Auckland University has published a paper in the New Zealand Medical Journal on the ethical issues facing New Zealand transplant patients and organ transplantation in China. In the paper, she argues there is a “strong likelihood that a small number of patients from New Zealand (and Australia) may travel to China each year to receive an organ,” and therefore “the implications of China’s transplantation industry have ethical and legal ramifications for transplant patients and health professionals in New Zealand”.

New Zealand doesn’t keep data on how many patients have received transplants in China. Malpas notes that between 2000 and 2015, 27 Australians and 5 New Zealanders underwent a kidney transplant overseas, but the number of New Zealand patients travelling internationally for other transplants including livers, hearts, corneas, etc are unknown, as are the countries the organs originated from.

Back before 2010, over 90 percent of the organs transplanted in China were procured from executed prisoners—many without consent. Particular alarm was sounded about the possibility that Falun Gong members and other political prisoners could be intentionally killed for their organs. In December 2014 Chinese officials announced the country would completely cease using organs harvested from prisoners but researchers have noted that no regulatory adjustments or changes in China’s organ donation laws followed.

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Over the last few years, there’s evidence the practice of non-consensual organ harvesting in China has declined. The Washington Post, for example, reports that the ban on non-consensual harvesting from prisoners, combined with successful efforts to boost the voluntary organ donation roll have reduced the strong economic incentives to harvest organs unethically.

But Malpas says for transplant recipients getting organs from China, there’s still a real possibility the organs were taken without the donor’s consent.

“To be the recipient of an organ sourced from China may render one complicit in that person’s killing, and thus to be morally blameworthy,” she writes. Malpas calls on health professionals not to recommend overseas treatment to patients and questioning whether they are obligated to assist patients with any pre-surgical testing prior to going to China.

Professor Stephen Munn, of Auckland City Hospital Liver Transplant Unit, responded that one of the best ways to address people going overseas was to increase supply here:

“Another means of helping with what may well be an ongoing abuse of human rights in China, is to do our best to subdue the demand,” he writes.