An estimated two-thirds of organ transplants in China come from executed prisoners

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Tongren Hospital in Beijing, China. Officials in China's Ministry of Health have admitted to harvesting organs from death-row inmates for transplant. (Photo from Flickr user Zebras Pares.)

China's Ministry of Health has admitted harvesting organs of death-row inmates and, according to reports, most of the organs used for transplants in China come from death-row inmates.

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"Officials within the Ministry of Health have said more than once over the last three or four years that about two-thirds of the organ transplants in China come from executed prisoners," said Mary Kay Magistad, a reporter for PRI's The World. "Now, we don't know for sure how many executed prisoners there are per year, but estimates vary from 1,500 to 5-7,000, and there are 10,000 organ transplants per year, roughly."

Huang Jiefu, vice minister of health, said that of the organs transplanted from prisoners, about 90 percent came from cadavers, which, implies that the other 10 percent of transplants include organs from still-living inmates.

Sometimes the death-row inmates are executed en route to the hospital for organ transplant inside "execution vans."

"This makes it easier to extract organs and to have the buses or vans at the hospitals so that the organs can be rushed in and transplanted into the person who is already on the table," Magistad said.

Magistad said the most frequent method of execution in the mobile execution units is lethal injection.

In the past, China has had problems with the commercial sale of organs, a practice China banned in 2007.

There is also an issue with the ratio of transplants and those who need transplants. According to a report from January, 1.5 million citizens in China are in need of a transplant per year but only 10,000 receive transplants per year. In the United States, more than 116,000 citizens are in need of transplants, with over 14,000 providing organs per year, according to data from 2010.

However, the process of receiving organs from death-row inmates in China may be unsettling to some, because neither the deceased nor their families are not always asked to give their consent.

"It's sketchy. If consent is given, it's usually given under duress," Magistad said.

There is also an issue with the timing of executions. Between 1970 and 2011 in the United States, 140 death-row inmates were later exonerated while awaiting execution, leaving many in the country to question capital punishment. In China, however, a prisoner sentenced to death may be executed any time after their trial, Magistad said.

Magistad said the Chinese Confucian belief system, in which organ transplants and blood transfusions are frowned upon, adds to the shortage of organs available for transplant. The body is viewed as sacred.

In 2011, China planned to change organ donor regulations and expects more willing volunteers to contribute.

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