On Monday, the University of Minnesota proposes granting an honorary doctorate to Dr. Chen Zhu, the Minister of Health of the People's Republic of China. Dr. Chen has done laudable research concerning leukemia and has pursued a number of worthy public health initiatives.
Unfortunately, Minister Chen also presides over a transplantation system relying primarily on executions for organs. In 2006, the China International Transplant Center proudly proclaimed "viscera providers can be found immediately!" -- adding: "The Supreme Demotic Court, Supreme Demotic Law-officer, Police, Judiciary, Department of Health and Civil Administration have enacted a law together to make sure that organ donations are supported by the government. This is unique in the world."
Numbers briefly declined in 2007 following steps against "illegal trafficking" and transplant tourism, with capital sentence review recentralized to Beijing. Yet the official system continues to source organs from prisoners judicially condemned for any of 55 capital crimes, aside from any prisoner of conscience (Falun Gong or others, via military medical channels).
The journal Liver Transplantation now rejects research from China involving executees or paid sources. In 2009, Vice Health Minister Jiefu Huang, himself a liver transplant surgeon, again admitted that executees are not ethically justifiable organ sources.
Writing in the Lancet, bioethicist Arthur Caplan and colleagues note that "it is clear from the numbers provided by China that not all of the organs for Chinese citizens and transplant tourists are provided by voluntary consenting donors."
Faltering attempts to promote a voluntary donor system do not justify continuing the execution-transplantation economy.
Given the Chinese civilian transplant establishment's de facto demand on ongoing executions under the watch of the Ministry of Health, granting an honorary degree to Minister Chen -- notwithstanding his achievements -- is to dishonor the victims of this horrific system. We ask the university to reconsider.
Kirk C. Allison is director of the Program in Human Rights and Health at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. The statement is signed by 21 other local and national leaders in bioethics, medicine and human rights. See the signer list.