China says it will stop transplanting organs taken from executed prisoners on Jan. 1 in response to human rights concerns, state media reported Thursday.
State media reports on Thursday announced the first firm date for ending the practice, citing the architect of China's transplant system, Huang Jiefu. Voluntary donation will become the only legal source for organ transplants, he said. China has previously said it would phase out the practice in early 2015.
International human rights activists and domestic critics have long said that standard safeguards were ignored when obtaining organs from prisoners who may have been pressured to donate. China has one of the lowest levels of organ donation in the world, because of cultural opposition and a legal requirement that family members give consent before organs are donated, even if the deceased person had expressed a desire to donate.
Citing Huang's statement during a seminar on Wednesday, the Southern Metropolitan Daily newspaper said China had a donation rate of 0.6 per 1 million citizens, compared to 37 per 1 million citizens in Spain.
"It can't be denied that at present, apart from the traditional thinking that keeps enthusiasm for organ donation low, people also have concerns as to whether organ donation can be fair, just and transparent," Huang was quoted as saying.
The low donation rate and high demand for organs opens the door to forced donations and illegal sales. China banned trading in human organs in 2007, but demand for transplants far exceeds supply in the country of 1.3 billion people.
Huang said that about 300,000 patients in China are in "urgent need" of organ transplants every year, but only about 10,000 operations are carried out, according to Thursday's report.
Aside from exceptionally low organ donation levels, a lack of hospitals equipped to handle the procedure contributed to the shortage, Huang said. There are just 169 hospitals in mainland China qualified to carry out transplants.
China launched a national voluntary organ donation program last year, and Huang said early results looked promising. “Only 1,448 people donated from 2010 to 2013, but that number [from January this year until now] has risen to 1,500,” he said. “I believe the situation will get better and better.” Huang, a former deputy health minister, heads China’s national organ procurement network.