HEALTH: Study Faults Unregulated Trade in Human Organs

  • by Thalif Deen (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

According to a study released Tuesday, trafficking in human organs also takes the form of 'transplant tourism' - patients from rich countries travelling overseas on medical safaris to acquire human organs from poverty-stricken men, women and children in countries where such sales are outside legal jurisdiction.

A new international convention is needed 'to prevent trafficking in organs, tissues and cells to protect victims and prosecute offenders', the study asserts.

At the same time, trafficking in human organs should also be distinguished from trafficking in humans for the removal of organs, it added.

Asked when the 192-member General Assembly will take up the question of drafting a new international convention, Rachel Mayanja, the U.N. special adviser on gender issues, said: 'We hope it will be put on the agenda as soon as possible.'

She pointed out that in general, victims of trafficking in human beings tend to be mostly women and children who know far too little about their rights or how to appropriately assert them.

The study says it is important to look into the existence of a gender aspect with regard to trafficking in human beings for the purpose of organ removal in particular, as well as with regard to live donators implicated in trafficking in organs, tissues and cells.

The 98-page study, described as the first major report on the subject, commissioned by the Council of Europe and the United Nations, says laws and regulations are a crucial basis for national organ donation and transplantation services.

This is necessary both to protect the live donor and the transplant recipient, as well as to meet patients' needs while maintaining society's principles.

'The donation of human material for transplantation must be defined by law,' the study notes.

The Global Observatory on Donation and Transplantation estimates that nearly 100,000 patients worldwide receive solid organ transplants every year - involving an average of over 65,000 kidney transplants, more than 20,000 liver transplants and about 5,300 heart transplants.

But the number of tissue transplants, including corneal transplants and heart valve transplants, is much higher, although there are no official figures for these.

Asked about published reports that human cadavers used in 'body exhibitions' were mostly body parts from Chinese political prisoners, Professor Arthur Caplan, a co-author of the study, told reporters Tuesday the same ethical principles that govern illegal trafficking should apply to exhibitions.

But there was a need for more systematic monitoring and more intensive study of organ trafficking, he said.

'The shortage of human organs and [the prevalence of] poverty meet to create markets,' said Caplan, chair of the department of medical ethics and director of the centre for bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

The study, which refused to name names, points out that in some 'South American and Asian countries', organs from deceased donors have been provided on a commercial basis for foreigners requiring transplants, including kidneys, livers and hearts.

'There is a well known example of an Asian country where organs from executed prisoners have allegedly been used for the majority of the transplants performed in the country,' it says.

Doubts concerning the validity of consent obtained from the executed prisoners, as a vulnerable group, and the fact that organs were mainly allocated to foreigners might lead this practice to be regarded as a particular form of trafficking in organs.

Asked why these countries have not been singled out by name, Caplan said: 'We can only rely on the media' for such reports. 'We try to be fair because the situations keep changing.'

Carmen Prior, another co-author of the study and public prosecutor of Austria, said one of the biggest shortcomings was the absence of an international definition of organ trafficking.

She said any future definition should be based on three basic principles: prevention, protection and prosecution.

At the U.N. level, the study points out, there is no legally binding instrument which sets out the principle of the prohibition of making financial gains from the human body or its parts.

However, in 1991, the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organisation (WHO), endorsed a set of 'guiding principles on human organ transplantation'.

These principles prohibit giving and receiving money and any other commercial transactions in this field, but do not affect payment of expenditures incurred in organ recovery, and preservation and supply.

The principles also pay special attention to the protection of minors and other vulnerable individuals from coercion and improper inducement to donate organs.

Although not legally binding, these principles have been incorporated in many professional standards and laws, and are not only widely recognised but also basically undisputed in terms of standard-setting.

The principle of prohibiting financial gains is also essential in order not to jeopardise the donation system based on altruism, both from living and deceased donors, which must be the basis of the organ transplantation system, the study declares.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service