A Chinese medical study is being retracted for relying on organs harvested from executed prisoners

A heavy price to pay.
A heavy price to pay.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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Last year, a prestigious medical journal published research from Chinese surgeons involving 564 transplanted livers. Now, Liver International is retracting the study amid accusations that the livers were extracted from executed prisoners of conscience—people killed for their beliefs.

If the accusations are true, these Chinese researchers aren’t alone in using incarcerated humans for medical experiments. There’s a long and gruesome history of unethical medical organ harvesting. For example, in the early 19th century, a serial killer who made a living harvesting parts for doctors in England was sentenced to death and dissected for bits like his victims; even his skin was used to bind a book.

The issue of illicit harvesting of human parts persists, and this week the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences is holding a summit on organ trafficking and transplant tourism. Among those present will be a Chinese former deputy health minister, Huang Jiefu; some medical ethicists have decried his presence, saying it confers a false air of legitimacy on a nation still relying on organs harvested unethically.

One of those who objected to Jiefu’s attendance—Wendy Rogers, a professor of clinical ethics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia—was behind the Chinese study’s retraction from Liver International.

Last year, the journal published the report by Chinese surgeons on hundreds of liver transplants performed at Zhejiang University’s First Affiliated hospital between April 2010 and October 2014. The authors claim “all organs were procured from donors after cardiac death and no allografts [organs and tissue] obtained from executed prisoners were used.”

But when Rogers saw the study, she doubted the Chinese researchers could have legitimately got hold of over 500 livers, based on what she knew about the supply of livers in China and the proportion of livers that are typically viable for transplanting.

“International programs report relatively low rates of procurement of livers from DCD donors,” she wrote to the journal, according to the Guardian. (DCD stands for donor after cardiac death.) “In the USA, rates of liver transplant from DCD donors in the years 2012-14 were 32%, 28% and 27% respectively. If retrieval rates are similar in China, this would require 1,880 DCD donors, assuming a retrieval rate of 30%, to transplant the 564 livers reported in this paper.”

There were only only 2,326 reported voluntary donations in the whole of China from 2011 to 2014, Rogers wrote. So if the study required 1,880 donors to produce 564 viable livers, just one hospital must have received the vast majority of all voluntary donors across the whole of China for four years—which is even more unlikely given that there is no coordinated nationwide system for rapid organ transport. She concluded that the organs most likely came from executed prisoners who did not volunteer body parts but had them harvested involuntarily after death.

The journal’s editor, Mario Mondelli, will issue a formal retraction notice and a full transcript of his interactions with the surgeons in the journal’s next edition, as well as the letter that cast doubt on the work. “The authors’ institution was given until last Friday, Feb. 3, to provide evidence against allegations supported by data that organ procurement for liver transplantation was not from executed prisoners. However, there was no answer,” he told The Guardian.

Officially China banned the practice of using executed prisoners’ body parts on Jan. 1, 2015. At that time, death row prisoners provided the overwhelming majority of transplanted organs in the country, the government admitted, but it claimed that was a thing of the past.

If indeed prisoners’ organs were taken, they may well have been prisoners of conscience, not common criminals. On Dec. 4, Jeff Jacoby, a columnist at The Boston Globe, wrote in a piece about movies that “China desperately wants to hide” that the film Human Harvest, which won a Peabody award in 2016, shows that the majority of prisoners executed and harvested for organs by the Chinese government were actually “peaceful citizens persecuted for their beliefs: Tibetans, Uighurs, Christians—and, above all, practitioners of Falun Gong, a Buddhist-style spiritual movement of peaceful meditation and ethical commitment.”