Press Conference on Joint United Nations-Council of Europe Report on Trafficking in Organs, Tissues and Cells

13 October 2009

Press Conference on Joint United Nations-Council of Europe Report on Trafficking in Organs, Tissues and Cells

13 October 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Joint United Nations-Council of Europe


Report on Trafficking in Organs, Tissues and Cells


To stop harmful trafficking in human organs, tissues and cells, a new international convention was needed to protect victims and prosecute offenders, correspondents were told at a press conference this afternoon, following the launch of a study on the topic at United Nations Headquarters.

“We have legislation and definitions covering the trafficking in human beings for the purpose of organ removal, but the study points out that there is a legal vacuum for the traffic in organs, tissues and cells,” said Marja Ruotanen, Director of Cooperation of the Council of Europe, which co-sponsored the study with the United Nations.

Joining Ms. Ruotanen at the press conference were Rachel Mayanja, Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, and the co-authors of the study, Arthur Caplan, Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics of the University of Pennsylvania and Carmen Prior, Public Prosecutor of Austria.

Ms. Prior explained that there were great differences in preventing trafficking in humans to remove their organs and preventing trafficking in body parts themselves.  Both phenomena required different solutions.  Trafficking in persons for the use of body parts was already recognized internationally as a severe human rights violation and a crime, and international law against it was already comprehensive.

There were also several global instruments dealing with trafficking in organs and tissues, but missing were internationally agreed-upon definitions within an international convention.  She maintained that such a convention should be based on creation of a definition of the criminal trafficking in organs, tissues and cells, or OTC, and development of measures to prevent it, to protect donors from it and to prosecute brokers and medical staff who engage in it.

Mr. Caplan said that although trafficking in OTC continued, many nations were starting to take steps to reduce it, and the report reinforced existing declarations by medical groups, the Council of Europe and non-governmental organizations that affirmed that organ, tissue and cell material should only be obtained for transplant through what he called “voluntary altruism”.  That is, no financial gain should accompany the process.

He said that trafficking was caused by shortages of organs in many areas of the world, causing people to travel across national boundaries to find organs or to have people moved to where donors were needed.  He maintained that in order to reduce the trade it was important to make sure that each area was self-sufficient in its supply of voluntarily donated organs, through well-run procurement systems.

The report, he added, was strong in its ethical perspective because of a conviction that “money for parts” exploited the poor.  He explained that those in extreme poverty often did not have choices and remained poor after they sold their body parts.  In addition, he maintained that buying and selling organs violated basic human dignity and medical ethics.

When pressed on that issue by correspondents, Mr. Caplan pointed out that sold organs were often of poor quality, were difficult to regulate in any way and the medical procedures often caused physical harm to both buyers and sellers.

Sales of organs also discouraged nations from achieving local self-sufficiency in organ supplies and allowed the disparities and trafficking to continue, legal or not, he said.  A market system damages the voluntary system’s respectability and affected people’s will to donate.

Other panel members added that a paid donation system could not be regulated even when countries tried, citing Iran’s attempt at monitoring, which was now being assessed, but which they maintained showed, among other problems, that it was impossible to regulate prices and keep out brokers.

Asked for figures on the extent of the problem of organ trafficking in various countries and its effect on women as opposed to men, the panel said that there was still very little reliable data on the topic, and that was one of the findings of the report.  There was an ongoing effort to obtain and assemble data from individual countries.

The report did not look at the question of trafficking of bodies for exhibits such as the “Bodies” exhibition of human cadavers from China that were displayed in a way that clarified anatomical details, Mr. Caplan said.  He was of opinion, however, that the principle of voluntary donation should apply to human parts used in exhibitions, education and training.  To the extent that there was no documentation to the consent of the individuals concerned, it “points in the direction of ethical trouble”, he said.

Asked if there was a decision of the writers of the report not to provide the names of countries in which the trafficking problem was particularly egregious, the panel said yes, in a sense, because in most cases they would be relying on media reports.  They added that there were attempts at improving the situation in some countries and they wanted to encourage it.

On when the General Assembly might start work towards an international convention on the topic, Ms. Mayanja said she hoped that the world body would respond as soon as possible, but it was impossible to predict.  Ms. Mayanja also said that the way human egg donations fit into the picture would be clarified when a definition of illegal OTC trafficking was developed.  “This is just the beginning, and it gives us an impetus to go forward,” she said.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.