By: Yeeun Lee

Organ transplantation. Most people think of the surgical procedure of removing an organ from one person and placing it in another. But what might seem like a straightforward procedure is actually quite complex. With the rise in medical technology, the rate of organ transplantation around the world has increased exponentially. As medical anthropologist Nancy Shephard Hughes explained, the contemporary market for organs consists of transactions that are a blend of altruism and commerce; of science and superstition; of gifting, barter, and theft.”[1] Certainly, there are altruistic cases of organ donation between family members, close friends, and even strangers. But that is far from the reality for most cases around the world. 

Most of the organs for transplants come from marginalized populations. And while they are transactions, and thus both parties receive something in return, this is far from free, fair, or autonomous. Poor and disadvantaged populations in the slums of India to the favelas in Brazil have become the global suppliers of organs because of economic necessity, not out of choice. There are myriad of issues surrounding the topic of organ donation, selling, and transplantation. Nonetheless, there is yet another issue with regard to this global market for organs, one that goes beyond the appearance of a “fair transaction.” One that involves organ harvesting and coercion. 

Recently, the Counsel to the China Tribunal — an international human rights charity comprised of lawyers, academics, and medical professionals — urged the United Nations to investigate China for targeting minority groups for their organs. And there are several witness stories. For instance, Han Junqing was imprisoned for practicing the religion Falun Gong and two months later, his body was cut up, his organs harvested, and his abdomen stuffed with ice. “The incision was all the way from throat to the abdomen,” recalls Han Junqing’s daughter when asked about her father’s case. The tribunal claims that both Falun Gong and ethnic Uighur minorities are being targeted.  But why would the Chinese government target these specific groups? 

At first, Falun Gong was viewed favorably by the government because of its ties to qigong: a Chinese martial arts focused on breathing and meditation. The government endorsed Falun Gong and qigong as a way to improve health. However, once the group started growing and gaining independence from the Chinese Communist Party, that quickly changed. Any independent group that values outside authority is viewed as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party. In the same way that Tibetans follow the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong members follow their spiritual teachings of truth, compassion, and tolerance. Thus, the Chinese government banned Falun Gong 20 years ago, claiming it was an “evil cult.” While in the past, there have been dangerous cults in China that have committed violent acts in the name of their radical beliefs, Falun Gong was not one of them.

Similarly, the Chinese government has also been targeting Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, in the name of “global counterterrorism.” This is occurring in Xinjiang, the northwestern part of China bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. More than 10 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang. They also speak their own language, which is similar to Uzbek, and practice a form of Sunni Islam. And while historically not many Han Chinese (the largest ethnic group in China) lived there, the discovery of oil and other natural resources has encouraged migration towards the area, especially by the government. This, in return, has caused tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese.

While the government claims that these ethnic minority groups engage in violent protests, Uighurs claim that the government is treating them unfairly. And to combat the “extremist behavior,” the government has started to install security checkpoints; confiscate phones and passports; and ban Muslim names, long beards, and veils. But worst of all, it has set reeducation camps where 1 million Uighurs are currently being held. These camps are thought to be the site where most of the organ harvesting is occurring.

Organ transplants can be life saving; but at the same time, they can be the root cause of harvesting and mass killings. 

Nevertheless, this is not the first time China has been accused of forcibly taking organs. In the early 2000s, human rights advocates from around the world urged China to stop taking organs from its prisoners. And in 2014, the Chinese government media reported that it would stop taking organs from executed prisoners and only use the national organ donation system. This seems questionable as this year, the Counsel to the China Tribunal announced that there was evidence showing that the number of transplant operations occurring did not match up with the voluntary donor system. In 2018, there were 6,000 official organ donors, which would only be enough to account for the transplants conducted in a few hospitals. And even if China were still taking organs from its prisoners, that would still not account for the number of transplants being conducted. Thus, in addition to the information gathered from witnesses, experts believe that this additional source of organs is coming from targeted minority groups. 

The tribunal’s chairman is Geoffrey Nice, the lead prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslavian president, who was charged with genocide. Nice believes that the findings “require immediate action” and that the United Nations “cannot turn a blind eye” to the evidence. Transplant recipients include both nationals and overseas patients; thus, this is a global issue.

But even if overseas patients were not involved, this is a severe human rights violation. It is the result of inaction from global entities and powerful countries. Time and time again, governments commit atrocities towards minority groups. Certain groups will face subtle differential treatment and those around them remain quiet. It escalates to a point where the same group is faced with systematic oppression, and society still remains silent. Why do we wait until it is too late? Do we have to be faced with genocide, mass violence, and organ harvesting to take action? To voice that something is wrong? To call out our governments for failing its citizens? 

The international community must pressure entities like the United Nations to take action and verify that organs are not being forcibly taken from people. Civilians must protest organ harvesting and discrimination in the same way that they are with regards to topics like climate change. This is a pressing issue. It is one that revolves around consent and free will. One that concerns robbing individuals from their dignity. One that fights against intolerant governmental policies. Organ transplants can be life saving; but at the same time, they can be the root cause of harvesting and mass killings. 

[1] Scheper-Hughes, N. (2002). The Ends of the Body–Commodity Fetishism and the Global Traffic in Organs. SAIS Review, 22(1), 61–80. doi: 10.1353/sais.2002.0022

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