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In China, Cultural Barriers Help Cause Acute Shortage of Organ Donations

Update Date: May 17, 2013 12:26 PM EDT

After a prolonged outcry from human rights groups, China is finally phasing out the use of organs donated from executed prisoners for the patients that need a new liver or kidney, for example. However, cultural attitudes may pose a problem in providing organs to the tens of thousands of people in the country who need them.

According to the Associated Press, Chinese cultural traditions dictate that people's bodies should be buried fully intact, posing a problem for organ donations. Attitudes appear to be shifting among the young, 70 percent of whom say that they have no problem with organ donation, but the attitude remains entrenched in the minds of the elderly. That poses a severe problem for the law, which currently requires family members to sign off on a person's organ donation.

"China has an obvious family hierarchy," Huang Jiefu, who is in charge of organ donations for the Health Ministry, said in a press conference, according to Reuters. "Every Chinese family has a core figure - be it the grandfather, father or grandmother - and this person has the final say."

On top of these cultural limitations, a significant segment of Chinese society does not actually have a problem with the use of organ donations from prisoners on death row.

"The legal philosophy of the death penalty is 'an eye for an eye' or 'a life for a life'. The public believes that saving a life is a worthy redemption of a dead prisoner," Huang said. "Every organ donation from executed prisoners has written consent from both the individual and the family." The comment is an explicit denial of a common charge of rights groups, who allege that these donations are often performed without the consent of inmates.

However, the use of these donations has caused a severe shortfall in the number of available organs. Each year, nearly 1.5 million Chinese patients wait for organs to become available, while only 10,000 people receive such surgeries. A 2007 ban on the use of live donors, except spouses, blood relatives, step and adopted family members, has also helped to fuel the amount of organ trafficking in the country.

In the future, though, China will probably abolish the death penalty, meaning that the country certainly needs to find a solution for its organ problem.

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