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updated 3/25/2012 4:54:28 PM ET 2012-03-25T20:54:28

State media are quoting a top health official as saying China will phase out the practice of taking organs from executed prisoners.

The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Vice Health Minister Huang Jiefu as saying Thursday that organ donations from condemned prisoners will be abolished within five years. It said hospitals will rely instead on a national organ donation system that is being set up.

China has a huge population in need of transplants but few donors. Most donations come from condemned prisoners. The government says prisoners volunteer to donate organs but rights groups say there are concerns that inmates are pressured to comply before execution.

China performs more executions annually than any other country.

China refuses to say how many prisoners it puts to death each year. Amnesty International estimates it is in the thousands, far more than the number of executions in all other countries combined. The San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation estimates China executed 5,000 people in 2009.

In 2009, the country's Health Ministry and the Red Cross Society of China this week launched a national organ donation system to reduce the reliance on death row inmates and encourage donations from the public, the China Daily newspaper reported.

China: Death row provides most organ donors

At the time, Chinese health officials said about 1.5 million people in China need transplants, but only some 10,000 operations are performed annually.

In 2007, medical officials agreed not to transplant organs from prisoners or others in custody, except into members of their immediate families.

Also, regulations introduced in 2007 bar donations from living people who are not related to or emotionally connected to the transplant patient.

The scarcity of available organs has also led to a black market, with brokers able to arrange transplants within weeks for Chinese and foreigners willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars. The transplants are also hugely profitable for hospitals.

The China Daily said traffickers have been selling organs from people pressured or forced into donating to people unrelated to them since the tighter regulations went into effect in 2007.

Arthur Caplan, professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told msnbc.com that it is "ethically inexcusable that the world tolerate killing to obtain organs for transportation."

"The practice should not stop in five years," he said. "It should stop in five minutes!"

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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