A Voluntary Donation System the Solution to China’s Forced Organ Harvesting

Dr. Kirk C. Allison, M.S., Ph.D. directed the University of Minnesota’s Program in Human Rights and Health from 2006-2016. He was on the 2006 panel of experts to testify before the U.S. Congressional House Committee on Foreign Relations regarding forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience in China, and he continues to do research on this topic.

In this interview, Dr. Allison shares his thoughts on what China and the international community can do to put a stop to China’s forced organ harvesting of prisoners.

An overview of China’s forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners:

China’s organ harvesting of executed prisoners can be traced back to a 1984 provision allowing the use of executees’ organs for purposes of medical research and organ transplant surgery. In 2006 allegations surfaced that the Chinese regime was forcibly harvesting organs from living Falun Gong practitioners. Discrepancies in organ transplant numbers during this time coincided with the persecution of Falun Gong, which started in 1999.

In July of 2006, David Matas and David Kilgour published their first investigation, which concluded that the allegations were true; the Chinese regime and its agencies were harvesting organs from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners. In 2007 they published Bloody Harvesta more in-depth investigation. In 2014 investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann published The Slaughter. Both publications concluded that not only were the allegations true, but that forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners is still going on today.

Although China promised to stop using prisoners’ organs by January of 2015, the CCP has merely relabeled prisoners as ordinary citizens to be counted among voluntary donation, extending the problem far beyond the issue of religious persecution.

FoFG: How will we know when China has truly stopped obtaining organs from prisoners?

Dr. Allison: Without transparency and international oversight, I don’t think there is a way of knowing. And there needs to be a fundamental accounting, an audit trail of every organ that’s identifiable.

What does China need to do to truly stop forced organ harvesting of its prisoners?

Dr. Allison: There’s a couple of issues: one is the issue of the population in general, and one is the issue of the medical establishment, which divides itself into the military medical establishment and the civilian medical establishment. On the medical side, the Ministry of Health oversees the civilian side. It doesn’t oversee the military medical side.

The military system at one point was encouraged to generate a lot of money for itself because of budget cuts, and they got very entrepreneurial. They ended up owning beach-front real estate and hotels, car sales companies, on and on. Stuff that you would have no idea that a military would be involved in. They’ve turned all of that into ways of churning cash. It was during this time when the organ harvesting and the international transplant tourist boom took place.

The other piece of it is the general culture in China and attitudes having to do with prisoners and the acceptability of using prisoner organs. Prisoners are not seen very sympathetically, in general, in China. And the civilian population, insofar as they had access to transplantations to people that had end stage renal failure and these sorts of things, were also very reliant as a culture on prisoner organs. It would be better to have a moratorium… of all prisoner organs, period. And then that would actually force the civilian population to make a choice: Do they as a culture, and as individuals, value this as something they want to support? And in this case, if they’re going to do an organ card or a donor card sort of thing, they have skin in the game or organ in the game, so to speak. Then that would be, I think, the fastest path to reforming the system and putting it on an ethical basis.

Do medical and educational institutions outside of China have an ethical responsibility?

Dr. Allison: Yes, I think so. And I think that we shouldn’t be involved in training Chinese surgeons, transplant surgeons. I don’t have problems with people doing other things, health-related research or whatever. There were quite a few hospitals, for example, in – this was about 2006 if I remember correctly — in Australia who basically suspended all residency training programs of Chinese surgeons. And this is a good policy.

Again, there’s two schools of thought in this: There’s the constructive engagement thought, one which I thought was really fatally flawed from the beginning, particularly with encouraging continuing to train surgeons when those making the policy knew that 90-plus percent of all transplants in China were still coming from prisoners. Or the cold turkey policy, if you will, and saying, no, we’re not going to give any material support with this.

And another whole area which doesn’t get much discussion or conversation has to do with the involvement of pharmaceutical companies who have done very many drug trials that have involved anti-rejection drugs and have involved large series of liver transplants and kidney transplants in times where you know that most of those are coming from executed individuals. And China transplants the second most number of organs in the world, so there’s huge volumes. It’s cheaper to do research there than here in the United States or Europe. And the pharmaceutical industry has frequently turned a blind eye.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. Allison: I think this [forced organ harvesting] is an issue which people need to continue to be aware of, and it needs to be focused on. There has been some increased action. For example, the European Parliament passed a resolution recognizing forced organ harvesting, recognizing also the sourcing of Falun Gong individuals and other individuals: some Uyghurs, some Tibetans, some House Christians, and others.

I should say, also, that I’m not a Falun Gong practitioner; I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian. This is something that is an ethics issue; it’s a public health issue. At one time I was the chair of the Public Health Special Primary Interest Group in the American Public Health Association; there are people who are broadly concerned about this, and it’s something that needs to be brought up on a diplomatic level.

I appreciate those that are working on this, and I appreciate the opportunity to be able to converse about this. And hopefully, in the next number of years or a briefer time, there will be a significant change of course. But I think there needs to be a pretty decisive action from the international community to change the approach.

Read Dr. Allison’s most recent work on this topic:

Chapter: China’s execution transplantation system and international institutions. A too-sticky wicket?

Article: Human rights violations in organ procurement practice in China

Article: Historical development and current status of organ procurement from death-row prisoners in China