No country is immune to the trafficking of organs, which has become a global problem that demands a concerted and cooperative response, said a number of speakers at a Vatican summit.
To encourage nations to create, tighten or implement legal and
ethical best practices for organ donation, the Pontifical Academy of
Sciences brought together government ministers, judges, law enforcement
personnel, medical professionals, human rights activists and journalists
While much media attention focused on the Vatican inviting officials
from China, which has been criticized by human rights groups for
harvesting organs from executed prisoners, the Vatican also invited
representatives from more than 50 nations, especially those plagued by
organ trafficking, including Mexico, India, Pakistan and Iran — where
the sale of human organs is legal.
The point of inviting countries struggling with or condoning the
organ trade was to give them the impetus, contacts and pledges of
cooperation from governments, professionals and organizations that would
like to see and help them reform, said Francis Delmonico, a U.S.
surgeon, expert in transplant policy and academy member who moderated
the final sessions.
The summit goals, according to the program brochure, were to describe
the extent of organ trafficking and transplant tourism, share ideas for
prevention and legal frameworks, ask participants to pledge to common
goals and engage all sides to work together and build alliances to stop
“Don’t miss the alliance that is there before us,” Delmonico told
participants. And new alliances will be formed among prosecutors, legal
experts, governments, U.N. agencies and the public, spreading awareness
about the growing exploitation of the poor and vulnerable to work around
long waiting lists for organ transplants.
“How can we be of help,” so the summit is not just an exercise in
“talk,” but prompts real change in India, he asked Saneep Guleria, a
transplant surgeon in India and member of its national kidney and
Delmonico then turned to Huang Jiefu, chairman of China’s national
organ donation and transplantation committee, and told him the final
statement the academy wanted to draft would call for the eradication of
procuring organs from executed prisoners.
“How can we bring this to your government to achieve that goal,” the U.S. surgeon asked.
Huang told the assembly that China “is different from the West” in
terms of its cultural and political system, but that the current
leadership was “very open-minded” and “strongly supported” his calls for
reforming “what’s happening in China.”
He reiterated a desire for reform and added that “international
cooperation rather than international pressure” is the better approach
to take in helping China “move forward and engage with the world.”
“We wish to assure you of that cooperation,” Delmonico said.
“The problem is worldwide. No one is untouched,” Shashank Bengali,
South Asia correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, told the summit.
He urged government officials and legal and medical professionals to
“treat media as partners in this effort” and reach out to or cooperate
with them to help broaden awareness of human trafficking.
“Journalists are eager to report” on trafficking and to share
victims’ stories, which often resonate very deeply with readers and
viewers, he said. Many write or comment to the news outlet asking how to
help address this issue.
Naziha Syed Ali, a writer for Dawn, an English-language news outlet
in Pakistan, said, “media are useful in holding government accountable”
and “shining the light in dark corners.” She said they are also a safe
conduit for doctors who want to expose wrongdoing they are aware of, but
hesitate to report because they are afraid of repercussions by the
criminal networks that trade in organs.
John Gill, a Canadian professor of medicine at St. Paul’s hospital in
Vancouver, said doctors have a duty to speak to their patients who want
to seek an organ transplant abroad about the health risks involved.
“People think it’s like getting your toenails clipped,” he said, when
instead there are often no records or assurances of what went on during
the procedure, the medications used and the condition of the organ,
which could be diseased.
Doctors should object when they see the potential for organ
trafficking and exploitation, he said. Some patients needing an organ
“think it’s no big deal to sell a kidney,” especially if they aren’t
aware of the deception involved or poverty driving the recruiting of
Kristof Van Assche, a professor of health law at the University of
Antwerp, Belgium, said many doctors are unable to fully cooperate with
law enforcement because medical confidentiality laws prevent them from
disclosing information about their patients.
He said lawmakers would have to make specific exemptions for
reporting knowledge or suspicions a patient is seeking to pay for and
receive an organ abroad.
Illegal transplants are possible because of complicit medical
professionals and lawyers, who are sometimes the ones providing the fake
passports for travel abroad, said Nelufar Hedayat, an Afghan-born
journalist with the BBC.
When investigating organ trafficking in Bangladesh, Hedayat was told
by a surgeon that he saw nothing wrong with what he was doing because
“no one is dying. We’re saving someone’s life. How can we be wrong?”
“Surgeons are godlike,” she said. “They are supposed to save you” not cause people harm, instead “they propel a falsehood.”
The impoverished and coerced donors, too, become caught up in the
traffickers’ game as “victims were often turned into middle men,”
finding more donors among the poor in “one big Ponzi scheme.”