Czechs exporting body parts?


The field of medical research has developed substantially since the fall of Communism, but in some areas, it seems, the law hasn't been able to keep up. Claims were recently made in the press that several Czech hospitals were exploiting a legal loophole that allows them to harvest human tissue without the patient's consent - which is legal - but then sell it abroad - for profit - which is not illegal, but not very ethical either. Radio Prague's Nicole Klement has more.

For the last decade the Czech Republic has been struggling to update and amend laws dealing with scientific research. A new law on transplants is still being discussed in parliament, and the papers claimed this week that several Czech hospitals and a private export firm have been using a legal loophole to create a market where human body tissue is harvested and sold abroad for profit. By law hospitals are allowed to remove tissue from dead patients without the patient's or their relatives' consent. But the current law doesn't explicitly ban or regulate the sale of human tissue.

Pavel Meriska is the head of the tissue bank at Charles University's affiliated hospital in the town of Hradec Kralove.

"There are two systems in the world concerning transplant legislation. First is the so called opting-in system where the donor must say yes I would like to be a donor after my death and this is expressed by a donor card. The other system is called opting-out and it is typical for Austria and Belgium and it is based on the fact that someone can say that they would not like to become a donor after death. With this system the person would have to put themselves on a computerised list of people rejecting donation. This is the system that is prepared in the new transplantation law in the Czech Republic."

But the new law has not yet passed through the Upper House. So hospitals are left to work with the old one, which is not exact enough to cover all aspects of donor rights.

"We have a very old guidelines that says that the patient is a potential donor unless they write a letter that says otherwise. But in my 20 years of practice I have never seen such a letter. So, in my practice I accept any opposition to autopsy or harvesting that is expressed by the family."

Human tissue from the Czech Republic is quite sought after, because testing of body parts is above international standards, and post mortems are performed on 80% of bodies. The figure is far lower abroad - across the border in Austria, autopsies are performed in only one death in ten.

Many doctors say selling body parts for profit is simply unethical. The deceased patient has not usually given their consent, and - of course - there is money involved. It remains to be seen what will remain of this unusual trade once the new transplant law has been passed.

Author: Nicole Klement
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