organ transplant 88.
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Last year, doctors told Avram Hirschon he had five years to live. As number 127 on the heart transplant list in Israel, it would take more than double that time for doctors to find him a heart. So Hirschon joined what has become a worldwide trend for those desperate for a new organ - visit the organ banks of China.
Traveling with a group of 14 other Israelis, Chinese doctors were able to find Hirschon a new heart within weeks. When he asked after the donor, he was told "The boy was 21 years old. More than that you cannot know."
"In Israel they only move you up on the list if you situation becomes dire. I estimate that I would have had to die five times or so before I would be at the top of the list here in Israel. Going to China saved my life," Hirschon told a meeting of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee Monday.
The committee, which met at the request of MKs Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) and Arye Eldad (NU-NRP), met to discuss the growing trend of Israelis visiting China for organ transplants. Israel has one of the lowest organ donor rates in the world at fewer than 10 donors per million people, compared to Europe or the United States, where there are 15-30 million donors per million people. China, on the other hand, has become one of the top destinations for those in need of organs due, in part, to a governmental policy that harvests the organs of prisoners on death row.
While health insurance companies officially condemn the practice, many end up funding their patients' trips to China. Moti Pinitzman, who also flew to China last year for a heart transplant, told the committee that his Meuhedet health insurance paid for the trip "to the last penny."
"In this committee, they are telling everyone that it is terrible and that they feel bad for the Chinese, and so on and so forth. In practice, they push us into the plane," said Pinitzman.
Representatives from most of the major health insurance companies were present at Monday's committee meeting, and uniformly agreed that they did not prefer to send patients to China.
"We clearly see the problems in this practice but there is no clear court ruling for us to follow, and so when the patients come to us, we can't always turn them down," said a Klalit health insurance spokesman.
For Gal-On, the root of the problem lay with the health insurance companies.
"The bottom line is that this is an evil practice, an unethical practice, and we are funding it," said Gal On. "The health insurance companies said that they only send people to 'government approved' hospitals. But the government is 'approving' harvesting organs from prisoners!"
"I look at what the Chinese are doing and I see the behavior of the Nazis. I, in Israel, have to look into the eyes of my patient and tell them that I don't have hearts for them. I have to listen to them say that they will go to China, where the doctors will nicely match them up with some poor prisoner who has their blood type," said Doctor Jacob Lavee, Director of Heart transplant Unit, Sheba Medical Center.
According to Ilan Lonai, a coordinator for Amnesty International, many of the prisoner's on death row are placed there for crimes such as stealing a chicken or drug use. While the Chinese government said that it had put to death 1,770 prisoners, Lonai said that figures collected by Amnesty international pointed to tens of thousands of prisoners who were put to death.
"There is no working justice system present," said Lonai. "No courts and trials. These are not prisoners as we think of them."
MK Arye Eldad described to the committee a personal trip he took to China several years ago, when he spoke with doctors who had prepared a "special treatment" that consisted of wrapping patients in human skin. Eldad said that when he questioned how the skin was acquired to fit different-sized patients, he was told by doctors that they matched patients with prisoners on the government's death row list.
"When Israelis go and take part in the treatment they are giving a hand to an abhorrent practice, where people are put to death on an as-need basis," said Eldad. "It's a live bank of donors. We can't kill a man depending on that day's need for organs."
For Hirschon, and several other Israelis who went to China for their organ transplants, the words of the MKs were difficult to hear.
"You sit there, with your money and your resources and make me feel like a murderer," said Ran Vaknun, a father of two girls who inherited a genetic disease from their mother that affects their hearts.
"My 13 and 17 year old daughters are waiting for transplants in Israel. I wish they would get them to this committee. We believe in the medical system here, but the option of a transplant in China could save their lives", said Vaknun. "I have two options - to collect donations to go to China, or to lose my daughters, this situation could happen to anyone in the country, don't cancel the China option at the expense of my daughters. Don't sentence them to death."
While Knesset Members discussed possible advertising campaigns to encourage Israelis to consider becoming organ donors, they acknowledged that there was a cultural stigma against it.
"As a rabbi I can't say that you should encourage other Jews to donate," said Rabbi Yigal Shifran, from the Religious Authority. "I know this opinion will not make me popular, but I don't see a problem with Israelis going to China for organs, despite where those organs are coming from. The bottom line is that their lives are being saved."
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