In a deep dive into obscure Chinese language transplant journals, a pair of researchers from Australia and Israel have added a new layer of horror to what’s already known about forced organ harvesting in China.
Searching for documentation that vital organs are being harvested from nonconsenting executed prisoners, a practice that the China Tribunal confirmed “beyond any reasonable doubt” in 2020, Jacob Lavee, MD, an Israeli heart transplant surgeon, and Matthew Roberston, a PhD student at Australian National University, uncovered something even more shocking: that vital organs are being explanted from patients who are still alive.
“We have shown for the first time that the transplant surgeons are the executioners — that the mode of execution is organ procurement. These are self-admissions of executing the patient,” Lavee told Medscape Medical News. “Up until now, there has been what we call circumstantial evidence of this, but our paper is what you’d call the smoking gun because it’s in the words of the physicians themselves that they are doing it. In the words of these surgeons, intubation was done only after the beginning of surgery, which means the patients were breathing spontaneously up until the moment the operation started…meaning they were not brain dead.”
The research, published in the American Journal of Transplantation, involved intricate analysis of thousands of Chinese language transplant articles and identified 71 articles in which transplant surgeons describe starting organ procurement surgery before declaring their patients brain dead.
“What we found were improper, illegitimate, nonexistent, or false declarations of brain death,” Robertson told Medscape. He explained that this violates what’s known as the dead donor rule, which is fundamental in transplant ethics. “The surgeons wrote that the donor was brain dead, but according to everything we know about medical science, they could not possibly have been brain dead because there was no apnea test performed. Brain death is not just something you say, there’s this whole battery of tests, and the key is the apnea test, [in which] the patient is already intubated and ventilated, they turn the machine off, and they’re looking for carbon dioxide in the blood above a certain level.”
Robertson and Lavee have painstakingly documented “incriminating sentences” in each of the 71 articles proving that brain death had not occurred before the organ explantation procedure began. “There were two criteria by which we claimed a problematic brain death declaration,” said Robertson, who translated the Chinese. “One was where the patient was not ventilated and was only intubated after they were declared brain dead; the other was that the intubation took place immediately prior to the surgery beginning.”
“It was mind-boggling,” said Lavee, from Tel Aviv University. “When I first started reading, my initial reaction is, ‘This can’t be.’ I read it once, and again, and I insisted that Matt get another independent translation of the Chinese just to be sure. I told him, ‘There’s no way a physician, a surgeon could write this — it doesn’t make sense.’ But the more of these papers we read, we saw it was a pattern — and they didn’t come out of a single medical center, they are spread all over China.”
For the analysis, Robertson wrote code and customized an algorithm to examine 124,770 medical articles from official Chinese databases between 1980 and 2020. The 71 articles revealing cases involving problematic brain death came from 56 hospitals (of which 12 were military) in 33 cities across 15 provinces, they report. In total, 348 surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and other medical workers or researchers were listed as authors of these publications.
Why would these medical personnel write such self-incriminating evidence? The researchers say it’s unclear. “They don’t think anyone’s reading this stuff,” Robertson suggests. “Sometimes it’s revealed in just five or six characters in a paper of eight pages.” Lavee wonders if it’s also ignorance. “If this has been a practice for 20 or 30 years in China, I guess nobody at that time was aware they were doing something wrong, although how to declare brain death is something that is known in China. They’ve published a lot about it.”
The article is “evidence that this barbarity continues and is a very valuable contribution that continues to bring attention to an enormous human rights violation,” said Arthur Caplan, PhD, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “What they’ve reported has been going on for many, many years, the data are very clear that China’s doing many more transplants than they have cadaver organ donors,” he told Medscape, adding that the country’s well-documented and lucrative involvement in transplant tourism “means you have to have a donor ready when the would-be recipient appears; you have to have a matched organ available, and that’s hard to do waiting on a cadaver donor.”
Although the researchers found no incriminating publications after 2015, they speculate that this is likely due to growing awareness among Chinese surgeons that publishing the information would attract international condemnation. “We think these practices are continuing to go on,” said Lavee. He acknowledged that a voluntary organ donation program is slowly developing in parallel to this. He said, given China’s place as the world’s second largest transplant country behind the US, as well as its low rate of voluntary donation, it’s reasonable to conclude that the main source of organs remains prisoners on death row.
Caplan and the researchers have called for academic institutions and medical journals to resume their previous boycotts of Chinese transplant publications and speakers, but as long as China denies the practices, economic and political leaders will turn a blind eye. “In the past, I don’t think the question of China’s medical professional involvement in the execution of donors has been taken as seriously as it should have,” said Robertson. “I certainly hope that with the publication of this paper in the leading journal in the field, this will change.”
The study was supported by the Google Cloud Research Credits program, the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship, and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Robertson, Lavee, and Caplan have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
Am J Transplant. Published online April 4, 2022. Full text
Kate Johnson is a Montreal-based freelance medical journalist who has been writing for more than 30 years about all areas of medicine.
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