‘Hard to Believe’ Screening: Expert Panel Heightens Sense of Responsibility

By Daniel Granger
Daniel Granger
Daniel Granger
November 3, 2015 Updated: November 4, 2015

SYDNEY, Australia—Academics and professionals from medical and legal fields watched “Hard to Believe”—a documentary-style film exploring unethical organ harvesting in China, at N.S.W. Parliament House in Sydney on October 28.

The film, a winner of six awards of excellence at the prestigious Accolade Global Film Competition, pulls together medical specialists including a former Chinese transplant surgeon, researchers and others to support the case that mass harvesting of Falun Gong prisoners takes place in China. The aptly named film, asks why more attention isn’t being paid to the issue—why it’s so “hard to believe,” in the words of Louisa Greve, a vice president of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, who appears briefly in the film.

The screening was supported by the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and followed by a Q&A session facilitated by N.S.W. Greens MP David Shoebridge. The upper house member has been instrumental in proposing law reform to deter N.S.W. residents from travelling abroad to receive unethically sourced organs.

Three experts provided commentary including China analyst and human rights investigator Ethan Gutmann via video link, and in person—renown transplant ethicist Professor Katrina Bramstedt, Ph.D., from Bond University, Gold Coast, and Professor Maria Fiatarone Singh, M.D., a member of the Medical Advisory Board for Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting and geriatrician from University of Sydney.

Dr. Jacob Lavee, a heart transplant surgeon at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, explains in the documentary that he could not believe when a patient in his hospital said that he was expected in China in two weeks, on a specific date, for a heart transplant.

“I looked at him and I asked, ‘Do you listen to yourself? How can they schedule a heart transplant ahead of time 2 weeks?'” Dr. Lavee said.

Gutmann who also features in the film witnessed the Chinese communist regime’s harsh crackdown on Falun Gong as a reporter in Beijing in 1999. At that time the spiritual and meditation practice was at the height of its popularity with estimates ranging from 70 to 100 million practitioners. After allegations of organ harvesting of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners emerged in 2006, Gutmann began his own investigation.

In his 2014 book “The Slaughter”, Gutmann traced organ harvesting of prisoners back to the early 1990s in China’s north-western frontier province – Xinjiang, right through to the present day where so called “health checks” are carried out on unsuspecting prisoners of conscience to profile their organs.

When a recipient—typically a wealthy Chinese national or foreign transplant tourist needs an organ, a suitable donor prisoner is matched and effectively killed on demand.

Ethicist Prof. Bramstedt said that some patients with organ failure in Australia and other countries “are ready recipients for organs from China.

“Their desperation to save their life, potentially fuelled by Australia’s severe under-performance in the area of organ donation, can lead them to unethical decisions.”

She said that organ donation is the very opposite of forced harvesting.

“Organ transplantation is supposed to be a medical marvel which pivots on the positive event of ‘organ donation,’ not ‘forced organ harvesting,'” said Prof. Bramstedt.

While official statistics of Australians travelling overseas for transplants do not exist, it’s estimated that in N.S.W. the number may be a dozen each year. While some critics suggest that these numbers don’t represent a significant problem, Prof. Fiatarone Singh said that having the attitude that it’s happening in “some other land and has nothing to do with us is really the problem.

“We should be just as horrified by what’s going on … even if nobody had ever gone there from Australia,” said Prof. Fiatarone Singh.

A simple demand and supply analogy would suggest an improvement in the domestic organ donation system and would likely reduce Australians looking abroad for organs, however that doesn’t address the gross human rights violations happening to thousands of prisoners of conscience in China.

We can’t afford to turn our back on these types of atrocities.
— Nathan Kennedy – President, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights

“We can’t afford to turn our back on these types of atrocities,” said President of the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, Nathan Kennedy.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was presented a petition in 2014 with over 1.5 million signatures collected by Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting. Although signatures
are now over 2 million, the organisation founded by medical doctors from around the world is yet to receive a response.

Mr. Kennedy spoke of the U.N.’s 70-year history, starting after W.W.II in the wake of the Nazi atrocities and charged with upholding human rights. He said that the U.N. not replying to the petition is “disgraceful” but “brings the realism of the United Nations into focus given that it is a political organisation full of sovereign states, and China is a very powerful one.

“This is an ongoing issue and has to be dealt with, looked at and stopped.”

Australia has been implicated in China’s grisly organ trade in another way. Before 2006, hundreds of Chinese surgeons were trained in transplant procedures by Australian hospitals.

“That’s how the Chinese transplant system developed … by being trained by Australia,” said Prof. Fiatarone Singh.

She suggested an element of culpability on the Australian medical profession is inherent. She said the medical community knew harvesting organs from prisoners was going on, but the Chinese did not admit to it until later. In this light it is difficult to distance Australia from the grim reality of forced organ harvesting in China.

“That’s why I say silence is complicity, we are responsible for what happened in China, we facilitated it,” added Prof. Fiatarone Singh.