Today, the Vatican kicked off a two-day summit on organ trafficking and so-called transplant tourism, which is when people who need organs travel to countries where they can buy them on the black market from exploited sellers.
Pope Francis has condemned the practice before—he called it a new form of slavery—but the Pontifical Academy of Sciences organized this conference to describe the extent of this little-known issue and find solutions. The Associated Press reports that conference delegates will approve a statement that declares organ trafficking as a crime against humanity and encourage countries to strengthen their organ donation programs to cut down on transplant tourism.
People from North America, Europe, and the Middle East go overseas to purchase organs because of the long waiting lists in their countries, Monir Moniruzzaman, a medical anthropologist at Michigan State University, told the Lansing State Journal. Moniruzzaman will present his research on the Bangladeshi organ trade at the summit. Sellers agree to have their kidneys or part of their livers removed so they can pay off debts or get out of poverty, but they're often not given the amount of money they were promised or the proper postoperative care, so the cycle of poverty continues.
Trafficking can happen within a country's borders, too. Take China for example. The country's former vice minister of health, Huang Jiefu, acknowledged in 2005 that the country was using organs from executed death-row inmates for transplantation. (Organ donation is not culturally accepted by many in China.) Huang later admitted that 90 percent of organs from deceased people came from prisoners but that the country ended the practice in January 2015.
Medical ethicists have long questioned prisoners' ability to give genuine consent when they're facing the death penalty. Not only that, but some believe this is still ongoing in China, which is why they're furious that a Chinese delegation, led by Huang, was invited to the Vatican conference. Eleven ethicists wrote a letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences arguing China's presence gives its donation and transplantation program an air of legitimacy, when they believe there's evidence that organs are still being taken from executed prisoners, including prisoners of conscience who haven't committed crimes. Others say that Huang is at least trying to reform the system.
For Moniruzzaman, just having the Pope speak out about becoming a donor would help. "The biggest impact that Pope Francis can have in this issue is that he can call for organ donations," he said. "If everybody is stepping forward to donate their organs, the black market will reduce by default."
Update 1/9/17: The Pontifical Academy of Sciences released its official statement on organ trafficking.