Marco Werman talks with The World’s Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing about the Chinese practice of harvesting human organs from executed prisoners.
About ten thousand organ transplants take place in China each year – an estimated two thirds of those come from executed prisoners.
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Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. It’s a gruesome practice but one that’s not widely known. China harvests human organs from executed prisoners. In fact, most of the organ transplants done in China come from death row inmates. That’s something that a Chinese health official stated this past week. The World’s Mary Kay Magistad is in Beijing. She says it’s not the first time Chinese authorities have acknowledged the practice.
Mary Kay Magistad: Officials within the Ministry of Health have said more than once over the last three or four years that about two-thirds of the organs that are used in transplants in China come from executed prisoners. Now we don’t know for sure how many executed prisoners there are per year, but estimates vary from 1,500 to 5,000 – 7,000. There are 10,000 organ transplants per year, roughly. What we also know is that there are mobile execution buses and vans in which a prisoner is executed. 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.
Werman: Just a couple of details here, Mary Kay. How are inmates executed on these buses – these mobile death rows?
Magistad: It’s usually by lethal injection.
Werman: The organs are taken before or after these people are executed?
Magistad: That’s a good question because something like two-thirds of the organs are taken from death row inmates and then, of the statistics I’ve seen, it said that 90% of those are taken from cadavers which suggests that 10% aren’t – that the people would still be alive.
Werman: Is there any kind of consent from either these prisoners on death row or their families for their organs to be harvested?
Magistad: It’s sketchy. If consent is given it’s usually given under duress. There has, in the past, been a thriving black market in organs in China because, while there are 10,000 organ transplants per year, there are 1.5 million Chinese waiting for organ transplants per year. That a ratio of about 150:1 as opposed to in the U.S where it’s like 5:1, so there’s a lot of incentive for people who want to make a little money to look for people who are willing to sell their organs – a kidney, for instance. The government has been cracking down on that and in fact made it illegal in 2007 to trade in organs, but it still happens with prisoners. Certainly too, the way that transplants are done, the family could almost order up an execution – we need a kidney; we need a liver; you want to find a death row inmate with a healthy liver.
Werman: Is that happening? Are people being executed specifically to fill an order for an organ?
Magistad: Well, there are two different things happening. People are accused of a crime and then are on death row. How soon they are executed and whether they are harvested for organs is a separate question. Once you’re on death row, you could be executed at any time. At that point then, if you’ve got, for instance, someone who is an alcoholic and someone who is not and you’re looking for a liver transplant you’d probably pick the one who is not.
Werman: Now, apparently there are some culture beliefs in China that would actually prevent people from donating organs. Explain what those are about.
Magistad: Well, within the Chinese Confucian belief system you’re supposed to keep the body intact after a person dies. This is part of ancestral worship but also just part of how people feel about their bodies being a sacred part of themselves. You shouldn’t be even donating blood much less organs. It’s a real problem. There’s a huge shortage and the government is trying to figure out how to fill at least some of the gap.
Werman: This news, Mary Kay, and then a BBC report last weekend about a reality show in one Chinese province where they interviewed death row inmates just before their execution (the show has now been cancelled as of last Friday), but it just makes me wonder what is the attitude, generally, in China toward death row inmates?
Magistad: That’s a really interesting question because I think in some circles people will say, “Well, if they are on death row they must have done something wrong.” But then, there are other people who are more critical thinkers who know that there are a lot of people on death row who have gone through very swift trials; they’ve been accused by someone, there’s been scanty evidence; a confession has been obtained through torture and sometimes some of those people are executed within minutes or hours of receiving their sentence.
Werman: The World’s Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing. Thank you very much.
Magistad: Thank you Marco.
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