China issues human organ transplant rules in attempt to clean up industry

China has published rules governing human organ transplants in its latest effort to clean up a business that has been criticized as being profit-driven, with little regard for medical ethics.
A human rights group, however, on Saturday said the rules did not go far enough and failed to address the "crucial issue" of procurement of organs from executed prisoners.
The new regulations issued Friday by China's State Council, or Cabinet, include a ban on the sale of human organs for profit and on donations by people under 18, according to the text of the regulations published by the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily.
The rules, which take effect May 1, also make it illegal to harvest human organs without permission, and standardize transplant procedures at the limited number of hospitals licensed to perform such operations.
Little information about China's lucrative transplant business is publicly available. Human rights groups have said many organs _ including those transplanted into wealthy foreigners _ come from executed prisoners who may not have given their permission.
"The regulations show that China is responding to great international concern over organ trade in the country," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview.
"But the regulations are no substitute for an open and transparent system. It leaves vague areas under secrecy, such as the crucial issue of the provenance of the organs, which we know are through judicial executions," Bequelin said.
China's state-run Xinhua News Agency said most organs used in transplants come from deceased Chinese citizens who had voluntarily donated. But according to Bequelin, more than 90 percent of organs used in transplants were obtained from judicial executions.
A senior Chinese health official acknowledged last year that a majority of organs were harvested from executed prisoners, but only with their prior consent, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper.
While the new rules prohibit taking organs without permission, Bequelin said where prisoners were concerned the process of obtaining voluntary consent either from the individual or their families was "virtually meaningless."
"We're talking about prisoners who are going to be executed. They can be subjected to all sorts of pressure to sign these consents," he said. "It is not an informed consent."
Chinese legislators have been pushing for years for a law to regulate and promote voluntary organ donations. The rules are needed, they say, to prevent unqualified doctors and profit-hungry hospitals from abusing patients.
Health officials say China faces a severe shortage of human organs, estimating that out of 1.5 million people who need transplants in China each year, only about 10,000 operations are carried out.
Voluntary donations remain far below demand in China, partly due to cultural biases against organ removal before burial.