BEIJING A system of donor cards indicating consent for organ transplants will not work in China as families will insist on having the final say, and many people see nothing wrong in using organs from executed prisoners, an official said on Friday.
Nearly 1.5 million people in China need transplants every year, but only 10,000 can get organs, according to the Health Ministry.
Many of those organs are taken from executed criminals and rights groups say it is often done without their consent - something the government denies, even as it tries to move away from obtaining organs from death-row inmates.
"China has an obvious family hierarchy," Huang Jiefu, who oversees transplants for the ministry, told a news conference when asked whether China could adopt an organ donor card system as practiced in countries like the United States and Britain.
"Every Chinese family has a core figure - be it the grandfather, father or grandmother - and this person has the final say," he said.
In traditional Chinese thought, the body is a sacrosanct gift from your parents not to be defiled, Huang said.
"That's why it won't work without family consent," he said.
However, Huang was optimistic that attitudes were changing, citing a ministry survey that found 70 percent of young people had no problem with organ donation.
China in 2007 banned organ transplants from living donors, except spouses, blood relatives and step or adopted family members, but launched a national system to coordinate donations after death in 2009. The organ shortage has driven a trade in illegal organ trafficking in the country.
Huang repeated that the goal was to reduce reliance on prisoners for organs by 2015, though he did not give any figures and China does not publish its death penalty numbers.
Still, many Chinese believe there is nothing wrong in using the organs of executed prisoners for transplants, he said.
"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.
"Every organ donation from executed prisoners has written consent from both the individual and the family," added Huang, who is an Australian-trained liver transplant surgeon.
But eventually, China will probably abolish the death penalty, so it will have to develop alternatives, he said.
"Depending on death row inmates for donations will lead China's organ transplants to a dead end."
(Reporting by Hui Li and Terril Yue Jones; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)