Study: Chinese state-run hospitals conducted heart transplants on prisoners before they were dead

  • A top American medical journal published a study on April 4 that revealed Chinese state-run hospitals had surgically removed organs from 71 prison inmates while they were still alive.
  • The authors of the article wrote that the operations were a violation of a “core” value in medical ethics that the procurement of organs cannot take place until the donor has been formally pronounced dead.
  • Heart transplants in which the individual is still living require that the donor be brain dead, most often due to stroke or head trauma; this was not the case with the 71 transplants.
  • In late 2020, researcher and human rights activist Ethan Gutmann had previously estimated that China had executed at least 25,000 people living in Xinjiang, a region of China highly populated by ethnic minority groups, for organ transplant related purposes.
  • Profit is thought to be the primary reason for the increase in transplants; a new heart costs over $160,000.

A new study reveals that surgeons at state-run Chinese hospitals removed hearts from prison inmates while they were still alive.  

The American Journal of Transplantation published a study on April 4 that revealed 56 state and military hospitals in 33 different cities were guilty of procuring organs from 71 living donors, all of whom were prisoners, over a period of over three decades.

Based on transplant surgeries that took place between 1980 to 2015, authors Matthew P. Robertson, an Australian scholar, and Jacob Lavee, a cardiac surgeon and Tel Aviv University professor, wrote that a close review of 124,770 Chinese-language transplant publications revealed that “brain death could not have been properly declared” prior to the transplants in 71 cases.

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This is in violation of a “core” value in medical ethics that the transplant of vital organs from living donors is strictly forbidden. According to this principle, organ procurement cannot commence until the donor is formally pronounced dead to ensure that the procurement is not the cause of death. 

Robertson and Lavee concluded that their findings “strongly suggest that physicians in the People’s Republic of China have participated in executions by organ removal.” Heart transplants in which the individual is still living require that the donor be brain dead, most often due to stroke or head trauma. 

Since the 1980s, China has developed one of the largest transplantation systems in the world with organs supplied primarily by its incarcerated population. Despite previous stigma against donating organs, China now surpasses even the U.S. in the number of annual transplants, with a reported wait time of weeks rather than months and years like in the U.S.

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In late 2020, researcher and human rights activist Ethan Gutmann had reported that some 15 million members of marginalized groups in China, including Uyghur Muslums, were subjected to an exam essential for checking organ matches for transplants. Gutmann also estimated that China executed at least 25,000 people living in Xinjiang, a region of China highly populated by ethnic minority groups, for organ transplant related purposes.

The primary reason for the increase in transplants allegedly comes down to profit. The price tag on a new heart goes for over $160,000. Other organ prices include $62,000 for a kidney, $30,000 for a cornea and a whopping $170,000 for a pancreas. 

Executions in China “appears to have transitioned from a firing squad in a field to the operating room itself,” the study said.

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