Head of the China Organ Donation Committee and former vice health minister, Huang Jiefu, announced that voluntary donation will be the only source of transplant organs, and harvesting of transplant organs from executed prisoners has now been banned in the country.
Organ donations are not widespread in China as many Chinese believe they will be reincarnated after death and therefore feel the need to keep a complete body. To meet the high demand for organs, death row inmates have been a key source of organ harvesting for several years, which has generated heated controversy.
Huang said, "Since the start of this year, authorities have demanded all hospitals stop using organs harvested from executed prisoners. China's organ donation industry has entered a new stage of development in which voluntary donation will be the only source of organs."
However, health experts have voiced scepticism about the pledge, arguing that organs will continue to be harvested from inmates but that they will now be classified as 'donations'. Last year in an interview to the Beijing Times, Huang said, "Death-row prisoners are still citizens and thus they also have the right to donate organs. We aren't opposed to death row prisoners voluntarily donating their organs. We aren't depriving them of the right to donate. Organs obtained from inmates would be entered into China's national voluntary organ donation system."
In a letter to The Lancet, a group of five medical professionals from the United States, UK and Australia, including the executive director of non-profit Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, wrote, "Current statements from China have a disconcerting sense of deja vu. China has avoided the end of use of organs from executed prisoners for a long time, with failed promises dating back to 2008. Additionally, prisoners have been redefined as citizens with the right to donate their organs, but the practice has not stopped."
In a separate letter, four specialists from the US, Germany, and Canada called on China to open its system to international inspections. They wrote, "China still uses organs from executed prisoners. The only difference is that these organs are now categorized as voluntarily donated organs from citizens. This change would officially bypass international ethical guidelines, and the unethical practice might never end."
As demand for transplants far exceeds supply in the country of 1.37 billion people, it opens the door to forced donations and illegal sales.