China Tightens Restrictions on Transplants

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

BEIJING, July 3 -- The Chinese government imposed new restrictions on organ transplants for foreigners Tuesday, part of an effort to curtail widely reported abuses such as selling organs and, in some hospitals, catering to foreigners looking for discount hearts, livers and kidneys.

The regulations, handed down by the Health Ministry, stipulate that foreigners visiting China on tourist visas cannot receive transplants, hospitals cannot advertise abroad and any hospital planning to carry out a transplant on a foreign patient must first get authorization from Chinese health authorities.

The tightening complemented a broader set of regulations that went into force May 1.

"Chinese citizens, including those from Hong Kong and Macau and Taiwanese permanent residents in China, should get priority in organ transplants," the Health Ministry said in a statement Tuesday. "Health institutions and personnel that violate organ transplant regulations must be severely dealt with according to the law."

Chinese health officials have estimated that as many as 1.5 million Chinese could benefit from transplants each year, but only about 10,000 can find compatible organs. The number of foreigners who receive transplanted organs in China has not been revealed. But some hospitals have launched advertising campaigns on the Internet to draw in foreigners, who often would face longer waits and higher prices in their own countries.

The regulations imposed in May said only a certain number of hospitals would be authorized to perform transplants. The Beijing Municipal Health Bureau announced last month, for example, that 13 hospitals had been chosen for the service in the capital. Approximately 600 hospitals nationwide applied to get on the list.

Transplants have long been a controversial issue in China because of allegations that organs are often taken from executed prisoners without their authorization, and thus are more plentiful here than abroad. Chinese officials have acknowledged that some organs used for transplants come from executed prisoners, but they say the number of such cases is low and prior authorization is required.

The Epoch Times, a newspaper published overseas and linked to the banned Falun Gong movement, last year accused Chinese authorities of running a secret camp in northeastern Shenyang where Falun Gong detainees allegedly were killed to provide organs for sale. The Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations as slander by an illegal cult, which is how authorities here have defined the Falun Gong, and foreign reporters taken to tour the facility found nothing out of the ordinary.

China's tradition of official secrecy has allowed such allegations to flourish, however, because no one knows how many prisoners are executed each year or how many prisoners' organs are taken for transplants.

Estimates on the number of executions range from 3,000 to 8,000 a year. International human rights groups say organs often come from executed prisoners and voice concern that the wishes of prisoners or their families are sometimes ignored.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company