Spaniard Criticized for Promoting Transplant Tourism to China

July 3, 2013 Last Updated: July 23, 2013

A Spanish man who received a transplanted liver from China, and then encouraged other people to travel there if they were in need of an organ, was censured by Spain’s national transplantation organization recently.

Despite reforms being touted over the last year, the People’s Republic of China has a notoriously opaque system of organ sourcing and transplantation. Communist authorities claim that death row prisoners are the main source of organs, but evidence suggests that most organs come from tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience who have been killed for their organs.

Oscar Garay, a former heavy drinker, traveled to China in 2008 to receive a new liver because medical complications made him ineligible for receipt of a transplant in Spain. He paid 130,000 euros (US$170,000). Garay’s case was reported in El País, the largest newspaper in Spain, in 2010. It provided a detailed description of his 2008 trip to Tianjin, China, where he received the organ at a time that had been arranged in advance.

The fact that a transplant operation is able to be scheduled rings alarm bells for doctors and ethicists: it indicates that an execution must have taken place from which the organ is obtained. Typically in Western countries that do not execute for organs, the patient does not know when the organ will be available, and must simply wait until a qualified donor is killed, or made braindead, by a car accident or similar catastrophe.

Voluntary organ donation rates are still extremely low in China. “They harvest the organs from the thousands of people that enter the concentration camps,” a Spanish human rights lawyer, Carlos Iglesias, said to El País in 2010.

The trip by Garay to China was not illegal as such in Spain, until June 2010. Then, a law was introduced which made it a criminal offense to “promote, facilitate, or publicize” obtaining an organ that comes from an illicit source; both those engaged in such activity, and recipients of illicit organs, can be jailed for 6 to 12 years, under the law.

The law was changed, in fact, only after legislators and organ transplant specialists in Spain were made aware of a report by two Canadian researchers, David Kilgour, a former parliamentarian and crown prosecutor, and David Matas, a human rights lawyer, about the mass harvesting of organs from practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline, in China. “Kilgour and Matas gave their report to the National Transplantation Organization, and recommended that the Ministry of Health issue instructions and recommendations not to travel to China for organs,” Iglesias says. That was in November 2006.

Spain’s National Transplant Organization had been aware of Garay’s case for some time, but they were moved to denounce him in the press only in May of this year, after Garay went on television to promote China as a source for transplanted organs. The director of the organization, Rafael Matesanz, called for “zero tolerance.”

“In our country, transplant tourism and organ trafficking… constitute an illegal practice that can lead to up to 12 years in prison,” Matesanz said in an interview with El País. He added that even those who announce, advertise, or promote such transactions are also liable to be punished under the law.

“This reform … is in line with the principles of the World Health Organization,” Matesanz said to El País. “The international transplant community has repeatedly expressed revulsion at such practices. Spanish legislation has been a pioneer in this regard.”

Parliamentarians in New South Wales, the most populous state of Australia, introduced a similar proposal earlier this year. The legal amendment in Australia, being pushed by Greens legislator David Shoebridge, would criminalize the receipt of organs from illicit sources, with tougher penalties if it were a vital organ (such as the liver that Garay received.)

In Garay’s case, he ended up rejecting the organ he received from China, but his medical condition was improved and he was able to get on the Spanish waiting list and receive a legitimately transplanted organ in Spain. He has not yet publicly defended himself against the recent charges.

“This law is a crucial measure for pursuing human rights violations anywhere in the world,” Iglesias wrote in an email. He described the mass extraction of organs from Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience as “truly a genocidal act.”

Iglesias added that “The National Transplant Organization of Spain is directly supporting human rights in general, and in China in particular … and is helping Spanish society to know the reality of what is happening under the Chinese communist dictatorship.”