January 12, 2007

Regina Finnegan paced back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the Marco Island Marriott Resort.

She passed out flyers to anyone who would take one, and talked for as long as someone could stand the warm mid-morning sun.

She, and about a dozen other Falun Gong practitioners, had a message to get out. They wanted to make sure people understood the organ harvesting crisis in China.

Finnegan and about 12 other Falun Gong practitioners protested the Chinese government's organ harvesting practices over the weekend.

The group began their protest at 8:30 a.m., and plan to continue throughout the weekend. The protest comes at the same time the American Society of Transplant Surgeons is holding its annual winter symposium at the Marco Island Marriott Resort.

The goal, Finnegan said, was to increase awareness about organ harvesting in China.

"We wanted to be here for the whole symposium," Finnegan said. "Unethical doesn't even approach what (the Chinese) are doing, and we just wanted to take the opportunity to inform the public of their practices."

The practices include removing the organs of executed prisoners without permission from family members, according to a 2001 U.S. Department of State report.

But Finnegan, and other Falun Gong practitioners, believe the Chinese government isn't just using the organs of executed prisoners. Instead, Finnegan said many Falun Gong advocates believe the Chinese government is harvesting the organs of Falun Gong advocates held prisoner in China.

Falun Gong was founded in 1992 as an eastern cultivation practice from the Buddhist school of thought [Falun Gong is not related to Buddhism]. The practice grew rapidly, and by 1999, when the practice was outlawed, it is estimated that 100 million people in China practiced Falun Gong. Since then, Chinese practitioners have been arrested and held captive without due process, Finnegan said. And as more and more people are traveling to China for organ transplants, suspicions have been raised that the government is harvesting organs from these prisoners.

Finnegan said wealthy people in need of an organ will often look to China for a transplant. While a waiting list in the United States, or other countries, can be months or years, the wait in China is minimal.

"That short waiting time alone suggests they are maintaining a pool of live donors," she said. "And while the number of donors has gone up over the years, the number of executed prisoners has stayed stable."

According to a pamphlet the protesters distributed Friday, a kidney can be purchased for about $62,000, while a heart can sell for up to $160,000.

Finnegan said transplant surgeons attending the symposium this weekend are already aware of what was happening in China.

"They tell us that they support us," she said. "They also ask if we have any new information."

This year the symposium is focusing on new ways to expand the donor pool. The keynote address Friday looked at regulated kidney sale, while participants were expected to discuss transplant tourism on Sunday.

Finnegan said people don't need to be a surgeon to make a difference. On Friday morning, protesters handed out pamphlets to Islanders walking by, and urged them to contact their congressman with their concerns.