China is trying to move away from the use of executed prisoners as the major source of organs for transplants.
According to the China Daily newspaper, executed prisoners currently provide two-thirds of all transplant organs.
The government is now launching a voluntary donation scheme, which it hopes will also curb the illegal trafficking in organs.
But analysts say cultural bias against removing organs after death will make a voluntary scheme hard to implement.
Thriving black market
About 1.5 million people in China need transplants, but only about 10,000 operations are performed annually, according to the health ministry.
The scarcity of available organs has led to a thriving black market in trafficked organs, and in an effort to stop this the government passed a law in 2007 banning trafficking as well as the donation of organs to unrelated recipients.
But in practice, illegal transplants – some from living donors – are still frequently reported by the media and the Ministry of Health.
Human rights groups have often criticised China for its lack of transparency over organ donation, but critics have focused particular concern on the use of body parts from executed prisoners.
In a rare admission of the extent to which this takes place, China Daily – citing unnamed experts – said on Wednesday that more than 65% of organ donations come from death row prisoners.
China executes more people than any other country. Amnesty International said at least 1,718 people were given the death penalty in 2008.
The China Daily quoted Vice-Health Minister Huang Jiefu as saying that condemned prisoners were “definitely not a proper source for organ transplants”.
The new scheme is therefore designed to reduce the reliance on death row inmates, as well as regulating the industry by combating the illegal trafficking of organs.
The system will be piloted in 10 provinces and cities, and a fund will be started to provide financial aid to donors’ families.
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