Wednesday, March 7, 2012
The issue of taking organs from capital convicts in China has been around for quite some time now. The question, of course, is whether the organ donation is truly voluntary. Stories of varying degrees of plausibility and reliability have circulated for some time about the commercialization of organs for transplant from capital convicts, and it's been a very sensitive subject. Human Rights Watch did a path-breaking report on this issue in 1994.
Now we have some new information: Huang Jiefu, China's Deputy Minister of Health, stated on March 6th that capital convicts are the main source of transplanted organs in China. He also supplied some interesting numbers from which we can make a few deductions. According to Huang, every year there are 1.5 million people in China who need organ donations to save their lives, but the number of available organs is less than one percent of that figure. (There is probably already some fuzziness creeping into these numbers, since not all organs available for donation are needed to save lives - consider corneas - and I have to wonder if separate statistics are really kept on specifically life-saving organs.) Using conservative assumptions, let's suppose that "less than one percent" means half a percent, and that "the main source" means half. (Of course, it depends how one classifies "sources"; how many other possibilities are there? "Main" could mean a plurality out of five different sources. Anyway, if you don't like 50 percent, just substitute your own number and see if the conclusion changes.) That would mean that a little over 3,750 organs are coming from executed prisoners every year - and again, this is using conservative assumptions.
What does this number in turn tell us? The actual number of executions in China is a state secret, but informed estimates put it at four figures - according to the Dui Hua Foundation (whom I consider reliable in the sense of trying to get the right number without a bias up or down, and having the expertise to do the job as well as anyone), perhaps around 8,000 in 2006 and maybe around 4,000 last year. Again, these are very, very rough estimates.
If China is really executing only 4,000 prisoners annually, then clearly something extraordinary is going on. Let's make another conservative assumption: that all executed prisoners are physically capable of donating organs. This means that 94 percent of them are donating organs. Given that Vice Minister Huang states that voluntary donations from citizens (non-prisoners) are rare, I can think of only four ways of explaining this extraordinarily high donation rate:
- Death row convicts in China have a willingness to donate organs that is completely unrepresentative of the general population.
- Convicts donate multiple organs.
- Donations from death row convicts are not in fact voluntary.
- There are in fact way more than 4,000 executions annually.
I guess I should add a fifth possibility: Vice Minister Huang's numbers are wrong.
Possibility 2 could bring down the 94% donation rate considerably, but let's suppose every donor donated as many as three organs on average - that would still put the donation rate at over 30%, which is undoubtedly way, way over the national average and still needs explanation.