In China, New Evidence That Surgeons Became Executioners

Eight doctors at Tongji Medical College Hospital in Wuhan, China, traveled 40 miles on March 18, 1994 to obtain a heart for a death row prisoner. But instead of waiting for the judicial authorities to execute the prisoner, the doctors performed the execution themselves – by heart extraction.

In a large-scale review we conducted on nearly 3,000 Chinese-language clinical reports and published in the American Journal of Transplantation, we find that surgeons consistently recognize such measures.

The Wuhan doctors write: “When the donor’s chest was opened, the chest wall incision was pale and bloodless, and the heart was purple and beating weakly. But the heartbeat became strong immediately after tracheal intubation and oxygenation. The donor heart was harvested through a 4th intercostal sternum incision in the chest. . . . This incision is a good choice for field surgeries where the sternum cannot be sawed open without power.”

By casually pointing out that the donor was only put on a ventilator (“tracheal intubation”) during the operation, the doctors inadvertently reveal that the donor was alive when the operation began.

For a declaration of brain death to be legitimate, the organ donor must have lost the ability to breathe spontaneously and have already been intubated. This is an established medical principle linked to a basic rule of transplant ethics: donors must be deceased before vital organs are removed.

Still, our research finds dozens of reports – spanning three decades in 56 Chinese hospitals involving more than 300 medical workers – that described brain death being declared before The donor was intubated. They were often intubated immediately prior to surgery. In the 1994 Wuhan case, intubation was performed after the start of the operation. Other cases were not intubated at all.

China has long been known to harvest organs from prisoners of conscience and prisoners of conscience in a large-scale, lucrative trade. To the extent that such religious minorities as Falun Gong and Uyghur Muslims have been targeted, a London-based independent tribunal has labeled it a crime against humanity and possibly part of genocide. So far, however, the role of doctors in conducting the executions themselves has not been systematically studied.

To conduct the study, we wrote code to download 124,770 Chinese language medical documents. We wrote custom algorithms to scan them for evidence of these abuses. We found 71 clinical reports that specifically admitted killing surgeons, and we suspect this was a tiny part of a large, hidden population. Thousands of articles have been published in China about heart and lung transplants, but most say nothing about how the donor was treated.

Our findings end in 2015, but we believe the abuse is likely to continue. Medical papers like the ones we examined were first unearthed by Chinese investigators on the ground in late 2014, and it would have been easy to order journals to stop publishing the incriminating details afterwards. While China claims to have stopped using prisoners in 2015, our previous research raises doubts. In a 2019 article in the journal BMC Medical Ethics, we used statistical forensics to show that official voluntary organ donation figures were falsified, inflating the success of a modest voluntary organ donation reform program used to underpin the reform narrative.

Leading medical professionals worldwide have largely dismissed such concerns. The World Health Organization took advice from Chinese transplant surgeons when setting up its task force against organ trafficking – and then appointed them to the membership committee. In 2020, WHO officials joined longtime apologists for China’s transplant system in attacking our previous research, which showed bogus numbers.

The Chinese state’s use of medicine as a tool of oppression is well known, as evidenced by the use of psychiatry to suppress dissent, conduct forced abortions, and more. Most recently, medicine was implicated in the genocide of the Uyghurs. Experts from the British Medical Association noted in their journal BMJ that “the Chinese government is systematically using medics, medical skills and medical technology to prosecute these crimes.”

But the global transplant community has largely accepted China’s claims for reform, ignoring evidence to the contrary. Comparisons to Nazi medical atrocities did not elicit a reaction, perhaps due to overuse it lost all effectiveness. Western political leaders have also shown little interest in investigating the abuse.

We hope that with these latest revelations that will start to change. It is now known that highly skilled surgeons have been killing prisoners with their scalpels on the operating table for decades. This is a novel and extreme departure from global norms. Perhaps with the publication of these results in the leading transplant journal, the issue will no longer be so easy to ignore.

dr Lavee is Director of the Heart Transplant Unit at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv and Professor of Surgery at Tel Aviv University. Mr. Robertson is a Research Fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a PhD student in Political Science at the Australian National University.

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