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Right to Organs, Right to Life
   2015-02-09 14:55:04    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Xie Tingting

By Lin Shaowen (About the author)

Last year, China issued a legal ban on using the organs of executed prisoners for transplants, effective since the start of 2015. Head of the country's Organ Donation Committee, Huang Jiefu, and a leading advocate for the ban, publicly apologized for the past practice and has expressed optimism that there will be a growing number of donations in the coming months and years. The country reports that more than 80 percent of organ transplants carried out last year benefited from organ donors; a record high.

This is certainly a move on the right track and though it has come rather late, at least it eventually came. China first started carrying out organ transplants in the late 1950s and officially began to use the organs of dead prisoners in 1984 when the country adopted an interim regulation allowing a "limited use" of organs from executed prisoners.

The move drew public anger and criticism, both at home and abroad. A mistake is a mistake especially when it violates human rights, although China was neither the first, nor the only country to adopt such a practice; nor was it a country that has ever used the largest number of such organs.

Such an approach put China in an awkward position, sending conflicting notes of denial and admission. Then came a change of attitude followed by definitive action, all of which started admitting to the mistake. At a World Health Organization meeting in 2005, Huang Jiefu, then vice minister of health, publicly admitted for the first time that China used the organs of dead prisoners as the major source of transplants. In the following two years, the ministry issued rules and regulations, limiting such use. In 2010, the Supreme People's Court issued legal amendments on human organ donations, banning the sales of human organs.

The past two years has seen a quickened pace in moving away from the practice. In November 2013, the health ministry passed a resolution to work towards eventual abolishment. In March last year, the national organ donation committee was set up, with Huang Jiefu as its chief. Finally, in December, Huang officially announced a total ban.

Huang Jiefu himself is a veteran surgeon in organ transplants and a former vice minister of health; and provided a strong vocal petition for abolishing the practice. As a scientist with a clear conscience, Huang did not shy away from admitting wrong doings. "The announcement I made is a requirement for the 169 medical institutions qualified to perform human organ transplant surgery to strictly follow the law. Our move, I feel, is proof that we are facing up to the mistakes we made in the past and are now trying to make it right. I myself believe China's establishment of the rule of law is building up step-by-step through moves like this," said Huang.

With the legal barrier lifted, the success of the new system mainly lies in two factors: technical and ethical, with an emphasis on the latter. Experts say they have no problem with technical advancements, as China is already the second largest country in terms of the number of transplant operations. The real obstacle is the shortage of supply.

2014 witnessed a major breakthrough, with 1,700 donations. That enabled surgeons to successfully carry out 5,000 major organ transplants. Eighty percent of the organs came from donors. But demand still outstrips supply, as the ratio between donation rates and demand currently stands at 1:30. Only 6 in every 10 million people voluntarily contribute their organs for transplant. Many people still maintain cultural traditions, which in many cases call for bodies to be buried or cremated intact. A traditional teaching states that, "The body, hair and skin are received from one's parents and one dares not harm them."

That taboo is changing however. The ever growing number of surgical operations indicates that young people (not just those in the entertainment sector) are more eager to change their natural appearance in order to look better. It is common nowadays for someone to completely alter what they look like within a matter of days, be it with "new" eye-lids, a new nose, or a newly shaped lower jaw; let alone the color or style of their hair.

A recent public survey carried out across several major cities, including Guangzhou and Wuhan, revealed that 34 percent of people are willing to donate their organs, compared with 45 percent of the population in Great Britain. What's more, Huang Jiefu says that with the new ban on using deceased prisoners' organs for transplants, people see a society caring more about life and rights. As a result, he believes there will be more donations. Huang and his colleagues now predict that in three to five years, China may surpass the United States in the number of organ transplants.

But there remains another big question - whether China should eventually abolish the death penalty - another controversy challenging the country's legal reforms and popular sentiment. I personally believe it should and will, but that will take time. On one side, the overwhelming majority of people still support the concept of "an eye for an eye", with regards to punishment for criminals. It is unthinkable for them to accept "leniency" (short of execution) for murder or other serious crimes. The reaction of the general public alongside the father of a victim involved in a recent poisoning case at the Shanghai-based Fudan University is evidence of such thinking.

On the other side, it is true that there are two conflicting popular sayings - "One would rather die than live in humiliation (deprived of their rights)", and "Better a live coward than a dead hero". But lengthy or life terms of imprisonment are not yet widely perceived as effective deterrents against evil deeds. While people in one country may show some understanding towards inmates protesting against poor living conditions behind bars, people in another country will feel equally astonished. Many people's natural reaction would be to say that the prisoners get to live a comfortable life if afforded such luxuries and that that is fundamentally unfair.

There are cases when China seeks international support to bring back fugitives who have fled the country, only to meet difficulties due to the lack of an indictment treaty, for the host country opposes death penalty. Again, this represents a dispute on rights. I sincerely support an eventual abandonment of the death penalty, as political reforms further deepen. But such a move is still premature. After all, democracy means majority rule - listen to the minds and current popular sentiments of most citizens and judge the effectiveness of legal decisions at the present time. So, capital punishment will continue, but not forever.

About the Author

A radio person, Mr. Lin Shaowen is strongly interested in international relations and Chinese politics. As China is quite often misunderstood in the rest of the world, he feels the need to better present the true picture of the country, the policies and meanings. So he talks a lot and is often seen debating. Then friends find a critical Lin Shaowen criticizing and criticized.

The opinions expressed here are only personal, and do not necessarily represent CRI's official policy.

Read all opinion stories by Lin Shaowen

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