American doctors go to great lengths to maintain the highest ethical standards as they work to save thousands of sick patients awaiting organ donation. That’s what recent reports of groundbreaking transplant experiments using genetically modified pig hearts underscore. On the other hand, China’s transplant industry, freed from stringent ethical rules, has found another solution: a thriving transplant industry, the world’s second largest, based on a supply of organs harvested forcibly from executed prisoners—probably prisoners of conscience, those who are held back by their ideology or belief.
Although China announced that it banned this heinous practice in 2015, it lacks transparency. Growing evidence indicates that it continues. However, the American transplant industry, while adhering to medical ethics within the country, openly supports China’s doctors and transplant industry.
In 2006, shocking reports emerged that China was forcibly harvesting organs from detained adherents of the Chinese spiritual meditation practice Falun Gong. According to these reports, after Falun Gong was targeted for “elimination” by the President of China in 1999, thousands of practitioners were thrown into concentration camps and prisons and subjected to organ screening, unexplained deaths, and disappearances.
According to representatives of the religious group, many were killed for this removal of organs, which were sold to China’s transplant sector, creating a billion-dollar industry. Reliable statements from former inmates, relatives, patients and surgeons support this thesis.
It was during this period that dozens of Chinese surgeons published articles openly describing procedures on prisoners who “were alive and breathing while the surgeons cut out their hearts,” as documented in a 2022 article in the respected journal American Journal of Transplantation, written by Matthew Robertson, a member of the Victims of Communism Foundation, and Israeli Dr. Jacob Lavee.
Last year, 12 independent UN experts said they were “extremely alarmed” by “reliable information” that forced organ harvesting was continuing and, moreover, targeted several of China’s religious minorities. Sources report evidence that the atrocity has spread to Xinjiang’s massive network of detention camps, which were built after 2015, and which both Republicans and Democrats have recognized as the site of the ongoing genocide against China’s Uighur Muslims.
Nury Turkel, who chairs the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, documented forced blood samples and organ screening from Uighur prisoners. One of them was a Christian, Ovalbek Turdakun, already interviewed by our team.
As noted in a European Parliament resolution of May 2022, a Beijing hospital blatantly announced the use of “’halal organs’ of Uighurs and Muslim minorities”. At the International Religious Freedom Summit held in Washington in June, Ethan Gutmann, the lead field researcher on forced organ harvesting in China, estimated that 25,000 to 50,000 Uighurs are killed annually for their organs. Gutmann’s research involves a former hospital in Aksu, Xinjiang, with quick access to an airport that distributes organs to hospitals across the country.
There are only one million registered voluntary donors in China, compared to 145 million in the US in 2019. There is no explanation for how Chinese patients can schedule appointments for transplant surgery in days or weeks — rather than months or years, according to report patients and researchers. Furthermore, Robertson, Lavee and Australian statistician Raymond Hinde concluded that the growth curves of China’s voluntary donor lists for three organ types formed unrealistic equations.
A 2019 medical ethics journal article pointed out that China’s donor database was “falsified” as a result of being “manufactured and manipulated from the core levels of Chinese medical bureaucracy.” Furthermore, the reported number of annual transplants from China, from five to six thousand, appears to be an underestimate. Documenting Chinese hospitals, beds and transplant surgeons, Gutmann and Canadian human rights experts David Mattas and David Kilgour estimated that 60,000 to 100,000 organ transplants are taking place annually in China, with 8,000 a year in a single hospital.
While shocking, China’s lack of medical ethics is not entirely surprising, considering the country commits ethnic-religious genocide. But given the serious questions about organ supply raised in these reports and China’s lack of transparency, it is inconceivable that top American universities and hospitals would support the Asian country’s transplant sector. As reported on their websites, Harvard, Stanford, University of Pittsburgh and many others offer China scholarships, academic exchanges, conferences and joint research projects. American institutions trained 344 transplant doctors from China.
Part of the American medical community apparently collaborates in the hope of persuading its Chinese partners to ensure that organ donation is truly voluntary. These US institutions take China’s word, even when prevented from asking for change, and even praise the work of the Chinese.
But they don’t buy China’s lies on their own. The medical ethics journal cited above noted: “The World Health Organization, the Transplantation Society, the Istanbul Protocol and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences have provided contributions based on what appears to be tainted data.”
The WHO Organ Transplant Task Force, for example, was proposed in 2017 by Dr. Huang Jiefu, who headed China’s transplant donor registry, has long served on the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee and, while far from independent, was appointed to the task force itself. Under the presidency of Dr. Harvard’s Francis Delmonico, who toured China’s hospitals as a guest of Huang and called him a “courageous leader” in congressional testimony, the task force was tasked with flagging crises in the transplant field. However, Gutmann, Robertson and Mattas say this group has gotten the research out of control.
To date, no US government has taken the ongoing organ harvesting allegations in China seriously. In 2018, the State Department attempted to settle the matter, flatly stating that China’s government “officially ended the long-standing practice of involuntary organ harvesting from executed prisoners for use in transplants in January 2015.”
The United States also failed to carry out an independent verification. Biden’s management should re-examine all evidence of forced organ harvesting and make its own statement. Congress should pass the 2021 act that provides for monitoring and preventing illegal organ harvesting.
Former Chinese military surgeon Dr. Enver Tohti, testifying before the Human Rights Commission, recently commented on Western indifference to this issue. Forced organ harvesting seemed “too bad to be true,” he said. But the evidence is too convincing to persist in this naive belief. Until compliance with international ethical standards is verified, the American transplant industry must stop all collaboration with China.
Nina Shea is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he directs the Center for Religious Liberty. She is a former vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, to which she was nominated by House Republicans.
Katrina Lantos Swett is president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. She is a professor of human rights at Tufts University and a former chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, to which she was nominated by Senate Democrats.