Vatican meeting calls organ trafficking a crime against humanity

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After a conference on organ trafficking at the Vatican Feb. 7-8, participants signed a statement agreeing to unite in fighting the crime of organ trafficking – submitting 11 proposals for implementation by healthcare and law enforcement professionals around the world.

The creation of the statement was one of the main objectives of the Summit on Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Participants in the summit included nearly 80 doctors, law enforcement officials and representatives of health and non-government organizations from around the world, who gave reports on the issue and how it is currently being combated in their respective countries.

"...we the undersigned pledge our commitment to combat these illicit and immoral practices as a community of stakeholders fulfilling the directive of Pope Francis to combat human trafficking and organ trafficking in all their condemnable forms," the statement, published Feb. 9, reads.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only about 10 percent – or 120,000 – of the estimated 1 million organ transplants needed are performed each year. This data was presented to Pope Francis in 2014, and is an example of the demand for organs creating, in large part, the drive for illegal trafficking.

In general, migrants, refugees and the poor are among the most vulnerable populations for organ trafficking, because they may be forced to sell organs if they do not have the cash to pay when soliciting help for transportation by people-smugglers to more stable countries.

Mons. Robert J. Vitillo, Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission, was a participant in the summit. He told CNA/EWTN News in email comments that he "was impressed by the determination" of those present at the summit "to work together to eliminate this terrible crime."

"It was noted very clearly during the meeting that, a contributing factor of this situation is the throw-away culture about which Pope Francis speaks so frequently," he said.

When influential societal forces see people or human organs as "dispensable," and not "economically productive," he said, then it is easier to fall down "the slippery slope of using other people as with all forms of modern human slavery."

He was particularly concerned, he explained, by the reports of the large number of migrants and refugees who are coerced into donating kidneys in order to pay for their journeys to freedom or to a more dignified life.

Based on reports and discussion from the conference, the signed statement puts forward 11 different recommendations "to national, regional and municipal governments, ministries of health, to the judiciary, to the leaders of the major religions, to professional medical organizations, and to the general public for implementation around the world."

These recommendations deal with governmental approaches to laws surrounding organ and human trafficking and their enforcement, emphasizing that all nations and cultures should recognize these issues as crimes that should be condemned and that religious leaders encourage ethical organ donation.

One recommendation calls for the establishment of legal frameworks, where they do not already exist, "that provide an explicit basis for the prevention and prosecution of transplant-related crimes" that also protect victims.

Another suggestion is that registries of all organ procurement and transplants are established and "appropriate data shared with international databanks" and that a legal framework be developed for healthcare professionals "to report information about suspected cases of transplant-related crimes, while respecting their professional obligations to patients."

It is also recommended that healthcare professionals be educated by organizations involved in transplantation in legal and international guidelines on trafficking, and in consistent ethical and medical reviews of both donors and recipients to assess both short and long-term outcomes.

"That nations provide the resources to achieve self-sufficiency in organ donation at a national level…by reducing the need for transplants through preventive measures and improving access to national transplant programs in an ethical and regulated manner," is also suggested.

Prior to the conference, there was some controversy regarding China's participation in the Summit, as the advocacy group Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) said in a statement that there was "no evidence that past practices of forced organ harvesting have ended" in China.

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During the conference, Dr. Huang Jiefu, Beijing's top official on transplants, said that Beijing was, in fact, working on reforming its use of organs being taken from detained or executed prisoners.

"China is mending its ways and constantly improving its national organ donation and transplantation systems," he said.

DAFOH criticized the Vatican for inviting Huang, saying that it would compromise the conference's image and objectives, when there isn't sufficient evidence that reform on this issue is actually happening in China.

However, the Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Mons. Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, defended China's participation, saying that the country's participation may help encourage reform, according to Reuters.

Mons. Vitillo said that during the meeting it was "clearly recognized that we do face a challenge in the waiting lists for transplants of vital organs, especially kidneys, livers, and lungs."

"For this we need to raise more awareness and motivate people to voluntarily serve as living donors so that the lives of seriously ill people needing transplants will have the opportunity for longer, fuller, and higher quality lives," he said.

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