April 20, 2024

Who’s telling the truth about China’s bioethics?

Confusing signals from China over stem cells and organ transplants

Somebody must be telling porkies about the state of ethics in China’s medical profession.

In Nature this week the head of the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health Duanqing Pei and former Nature journalist Douglas Sipp claim that China’s reputation as a “wild east” of stem cell therapies is undeserved. They paint a picture of a disciplined and ethical scientific fraternity.

“ … all too often the intimation is that Chinese scientists are free to do anything and are a step away from making designer babies. What is more, commentators, both in China and outside it, often assume that scientists and others in China have little concern about the fate of early human embryos. Even a cursory review of China’s existing regulations, as well as its research and social norms, shows that this picture is fundamentally inaccurate.”

The authors say that China’s regulations are hidden behind a veil of ignorance due to the language barrier. But researchers operate with clear guidelines and firm regulation. “[I]n relation to the use of human embryos in research, China’s approach has arguably been more effective and enabling than the legal patchwork seen in much of the world.”

On the other hand, doughty critics of China’s organ transplant industry accuse the government of “a new form of genocide that is using the most respected members of socieity to implement it”. The International Coalition to End Organ Pillaging in China has released a 798-page report which claims that between 60,000 and 100,000 organs are being transplanted every year – far more than the official figures. What is the source? Falun Gong activists and their supporters in the West say that it is political prisoners and prisoners of conscience: Falun Gong members, Tibetans, Uighur separatists and house Christians.  

“What we’re trying to do is get the government, the party state in Beijing, to stop killing their own people for their organs,” David Kilgour, a human-rights activist and former Canadian MP, told the Toronto Globe and Mail. “An industrial-scale crime against humanity is going on in China.”

The authors of the report, who have written extensively on China’s organ transplants in the past, are David Kilgour, David Matas and Ethan Gutmann.

Their claims face an obvious problem: they cannot be proved. Nearly all the evidence is based on inferences from statistics gathered from transplant centres. The Chinese government has angrily denied all of the allegations. It states that from 2015 the government stopped using death row prisoners as sources for organ donation and that organ donation is completely voluntary.

And Jeremy Chapman, an Australian transplant surgeon and former president of the Transplantation Society, describes the estimates in this new report “pure imagination piled upon political intent.” He says that the figures have been fabricated by the Falun Gong.

Here’s a video about the report

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