In line with Amnesty International’s opposition to the death penalty as a violation of the right to life and the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the organisation opposes the use of organs from executed prisoners anywhere in the world. Amnesty International is concerned that the timing of an execution could be influenced by an intention to use the organs of a particular prisoner, and that use of death row prisoners may become an accepted source of organs therefore impeding the adoption or implementation of measures towards abolishing the death penalty. Amnesty International also considers that meaningful consent can not be demonstrated in prisoners facing execution where they have not previously expressed such a wish prior to their imprisonment (through, for example, filling out an organ donor card or otherwise expressing their wishes).
As every individual has the right to the highest attainable standard of health, Amnesty International supports measures taken by governments to ensure the availability of ethically obtained voluntarily donated human organs to meet health needs. Consistent with this, Amnesty International welcomes the principles contained in the Declaration of Istanbul on Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism. The Declaration was adopted in 2008 by more than 150 representatives of scientific and medical bodies from around the world. It advocates the adoption of legislation to govern the recovery of organs from deceased and living donors and the practice of transplantation, consistent with international standards.
States should develop and implement effective regulatory mechanisms that protect individuals from non-consensual organ removal. Amnesty International urges that the practice of taking organs from executed prisoners be stopped and replaced by practices compatible with the World Health Organization Guiding Principles on Human Cell, Tissue and Organ Transplantation. These Guiding Principles, which were endorsed by the World Health Assembly in May 2010, require consent on the part of the donor and a non-commercial basis to the transplantation.
Amnesty International has documented serious concerns about the sourcing of organs from executed prisoners in China since 1993. For example:
Death Sentences and Executions in 2009, ACT 50/001/2010, March 2010;
China: The Olympics countdown – broken promises ASA 17/089/2008 July 2008;
China The Olympics countdown – crackdown on activists threatens Olympics legacy ASA 17/050/2008 April 2008;
Execution by lethal injection: A quarter century of state poisoning, ACT 50/007/2007 October 2007.
In recent years, the Chinese government has made certain limited advances both in relation to reviewing death sentences, and in regulating organ transplantation. This includes prohibiting any trade in organs in a regulation that came into effect in 2007. A system for voluntary donor registration is also in its infancy, piloted in 10 provinces and cities by the Ministry of Health in conjunction with the Red Cross Society of China.
Whereas the Chinese Medical Association agreed with the World Medical Association in October 2007 that the organs of prisoners and other individuals in custody must not be used for transplantation, except for members of their immediate family, (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/84754.php), this does not appear to have curtailed the practice. The government acknowledges that executed prisoners continue to be the source of the vast majority of organs used in transplantation surgery in China (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673608613598/fulltext). The Vice Minister of Health, Huang Jiefu, subsequently stated to the media in August 2009 that “the rights of death-row prisoners to donate is fully respected and written consent from death row prisoners was required”, yet confirmed that executed prisoners were “definitely not a proper source for organ transplants” (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2009-08/26/content_8616938.htm).
Amnesty International believes that the practice of taking organs from executed prisoners in China must be stopped and, in establishing alternatives, much more must be done to develop and implement effective regulatory mechanisms. Companies should exercise due diligence to ensure that they are not directly or indirectly implicated in the taking or use of organs from executed prisoners.
On 15-19 August 2010, leaders from pharmaceutical companies will join experts from around the world to participate in the XXIII International Congress of the Transplantation Society. Amnesty International is taking the opportunity of this Congress to call on pharmaceutical companies to collectively:
- declare their commitment to respecting human rights;
- condemn the practice of sourcing organs from executed prisoners; and
- undertake to carry out human rights due diligence, including throughout their value chains, so as to become aware of, prevent and address adverse human rights impacts, and to ensure that they do not directly or indirectly assist, encourage or support the sourcing of organs from executed prisoners.