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Transplants and Ethics in San Francisco

By Alejandro Centurion, M.D.
Epoch Times San Francisco Staff
May 23, 2007

This past month the world's leading transplant experts gathered in San Francisco to share important advances and discoveries at two major conferences, the annual American Transplant Congress 2007 (ATC) and the World Heart and Lung Transplantation Congress.

Over 10,000 attendees traveling from all over the world, including physicians, surgeons, nurses, pharmacists, and organ procurement personnel, came to the Bay Area to speak in-depth about their latest findings and breakthroughs. Along with discussions into the latest biomedical advances there were also discussions about important ethical and moral problems in the field of transplantation.

One of these concerns was highlighted by Falun Gong practitioners who stood outside the convention centers raising awareness to the attendees and public about a serious problem in international human rights and medical ethics.

Growing evidence suggests that thousands if not hundreds of thousands of prisoners of conscience in Chinese labor camps have been and are being killed for their organs as part of a lucrative and burgeoning transplantation business in China.

If true, these crimes represent the gravest violation of medical ethics since the horrific crimes committed by German doctors during the holocaust.

Investigative Report Confirms Horrific Practice

Perhaps the most compelling evidence supporting these claims is the investigative report published last July by David Kilgour, former Canadian Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and international human rights lawyer David Matas.

In The Report into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China and their revised report— Bloody Harvest —published in January this year, the authors conclude that China is harvesting organs in large scale from unwilling live prisoners of conscience, primarily Falun Gong practitioners.

The report is based on a number of well established facts; the number of organ transplants has dramatically increased in China since the start of the persecution of Falun Gong in 1999. The report lists for example that there were only 22 liver transplant centers in China before 1999, and as of 2006 there are over 500. In 1998 the number of liver transplants in all of China totaled 135, and in 2006 alone over 4,000 were carried out.

Where are all the organs coming from? The Chinese Health Ministry acknowledged for the first time in 2005 that only 5 percent of organs transplanted in China come from family donation or brain-dead donors, and admitted that the other 95 percent are from executed prisoners. However, these numbers do not fully add up.

According to the Kilgour and Matas report, even taking into account all the prisoner executions (from Amnesty International reports) between the period of 2000 to 2005, the source of approximately 41,500 organs remains unaccounted for. There are many pieces of incriminating evidence that support the authors' conclusions that these organs are coming primarily from live Falun Gong prisoners of conscience.

The evidence detailed in their report includes interviews with various eyewitnesses in China, who were some of the first people to reveal these crimes to the world community. Also, investigative calls were made to hospitals inquiring about transplants where Chinese medical staff have stated directly that they have Falun Gong organs available, that they are healthy organs and available within weeks.

Organs Readily Available on the Internet

There are marketing Web sites from China http://en.zoukiishoku.com/ in multiple languages specially geared to foreigners with price listings for each organ; in many cases these transplant websites guarantee availability of a matching organ within two to three weeks. The average waiting time for a kidney or liver in most western countries is at least three to eight years.

In addition, many Falun Gong practitioners who have been in labor camps in China testified to having been subjected to extensive medical testing including blood draws. This is presumably the way the Chinese government has created a large bank of organ donors that are pre typed and matched to be killed on demand when needed.

Although there has long been concern over ethical standards of organ transplant practices in China (the U.S. Congress first held special hearings on the subject back in 2001), since the publication of the Kilgour-Matas report this concern has only grown. With this increased concern there are now signs that the medical community is beginning to take steps to address this serious problem.

Various societies, such as the British Transplant Society, the World Transplant Society, the National Kidney Foundation, and recently the United Nations, have issued statements concerning unethical organ procurement practices in China.

Physicians in some countries are beginning to take active measures to address the problem. According to a recent Epoch Times report, Professor John McCall, the New Zealand representative for the transplant section of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and transplant specialist at Auckland Hospital, has signed, along with another 20 transplant specialists, a "strongly worded letter" to the New Zealand government.

Among their recommendations is a ban on training Chinese doctors in transplant surgery until they can be assured that the skills will not be used to harvest organs from unwilling donors.

UCSF Researcher Surveys Medical Professionals

According to one study ("Ethical Practices in Organ Procurement: An International Survey") presented this month at the ATC by a UCSF medical researcher, Dr. Scott Biggins, the above measures would be supported by most members of the transplant community.

In this survey, over half of the liver transplant specialists surveyed would not participate in the training of physicians who intend to practice in countries with unethical procurement practices.

In addition, over 67 percent would support an embargo on scientific reports coming from countries with unethical procurement practices.

Results of the survey showed that only four percent of liver transplant specialists felt China had unethical organ procurement practices, contrasted with 87 percent who considered organ procurement practices to be ethical in the United States. Most would discourage patients from going to China for a transplant (based on concerns of the use of condemned prisoners).

Dr. Biggins pointed out that "There was a wide discrepancy in providers' responses," referring to some of the responses from physicians' surveys which ranged from "Wouldn't you send your wife to China if there was no alternative?" to "The practice in China borders on murder." Dr. Biggins remarked that there are still many people who need to be educated on unethical organ procurement practices.

Another study at the ATC looked at transplant tourism, a term referring to when a patient seeks a transplant in a foreign county. Dr. Merion's study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services looked at patients who withdrew from the kidney transplant list and then obtained a transplant in another country.

A total of 119 were reported, the total number being unknown and very difficult to calculate. Among the results of the study, California was the state with most residents seeking transplants elsewhere, at 44 percent of the total. China was the country most frequented for transplants.

Dangers of Chinese Medical Procedures

Aside from the ethical and moral concerns over transplant tourism in countries with unethical procurement practices, there is also concern among transplant specialists about the quality and outcome of the procedures in these countries.

Dr. Adam Mclean from Hammersmith Hospital in London told The Epoch Times he has had three patients who went to China to get transplants. One of them contracted Hepatitis B from the procedure and eventually passed away. Dr. Mclean does not recommend patients to go overseas to countries such as China. The main reason he disapproves is due to the unethical nature of these practices, however, he also mentioned other reasons such as the high rate of complications, severe infections, and high rejection rate, among others.

Another surgeon from London also supported these views. His hospital in London conducted a survey into overseas transplants, showing there was a 50 percent one-year graft survival compared to the 90-95 percent one-year graft survival that would be expected in the U.S. and Europe.