Human rights groups believe China is reducing the number of people it executes, though firm numbers are still hard to come by. Starting next month, it’s also ending one of the more gruesome aspects of the process, the use of executed prisoners as a source of organs for transplants. The move, which has been promised for some time, is a welcome human rights development. It’s also going to contribute to an acute shortage of organs.
With its massive and aging population, China has an obvious need for organs, but it also has one of the world’s lowest transplant rates. According to Chinese customs, bodies are traditionally buried intact and family members are often reluctant to allow organs to be removed. Only 130 people signed up to be organ donors in China between 2003 and 2009.
Organs from executed prisoners have often found their way beyond the country’s borders. In 2007, when China reduced the number of executions in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the price of kidneys skyrocketed in South Korea. That same year, China officially banned the practice of selling organs from Chinese prisoners to foreigners, though a robust black market still exists.
This didn’t address the domestic issue, though. China admitted in 2009 that 65 percent of the country’s organ donations were obtained from executed prisoners. It’s down to about 54 percent today, according to official statistics.
While it’s good that a gruesome practice is coming to an end, it’s also true that only an estimated 10,000 patients receive transplants each year in China out of the 300,000 who need them. The government has been working to increase donation rates, but public distrust of the health system is high. Stories of local Red Cross officials threatening to pull the plug on patients if their families don’t sign over their organs probably aren’t going to encourage cooperation.
As a report today indicates, chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer are making up a much larger portion of the death toll in developing countries as life expectancies increase and once-devastating infectious diseases are brought under control. This is good news, but providing long-term care for these conditions in places with limited resources will lead to some major ethical issues, of which China’s organ harvest is just a particularly extreme example.