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Estonia Suspects Israelis Performed Illegal Transplants

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Kidney transplants recently performed in Estonia have thrown the spotlight on the issue of Israeli organ transplants.

The controversy, which one leading daily newspaper in the Baltic nation has labeled the “scandal of the year,” began in early January, when Israeli surgeons transplanted kidneys into Israeli patients at the Central Hospital in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.

The doctors claimed at first that the donors also came from the Jewish state, but this claim was cast into doubt after a report quoted a Russian citizen who said he was a relative of one of the donors.

The surgeons now say that the donors were citizens of Russia, Moldova and Romania, and that the donors gave the organs for free.

Authorities and medical officials in Estonia are questioning this version as well — and the Baltic nation’s government and police suspect the transplants may have been linked to the illegal international trade in human organs.

The chief physician of the Tallinn Central Hospital has been fired, while Israel’s health minister, Yehoshua Matza, has demanded that Estonia launch criminal proceedings against Zaki Shapira, one of the surgeons who performed the operations.

Estonian police probing the case say the two Israeli doctors who carried out the surgery, the six Israeli patients, and the donors concealed the aim of the visit in their visa applications.

In a special session last week, the Estonian Cabinet slammed the operations themselves as “unethical,” although it acknowledged that no Estonian laws had been violated.

Estonia is a signatory to an international agreement that bans trade in human organs, but the Estonian Parliament has not yet ratified the document.

According to Dr. Shmuel Penchas, the director general of Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel, the practice of Israelis traveling abroad for transplants is relatively commonplace.

“The only thing new about this is that it’s Estonia — and not Turkey or India,” he said in a telephone interview. “There are even stories about Israelis getting transplants in Iraq.”

The reason for this practice is simple: Transplants are difficult to obtain in the Jewish state. Unless the donor is a relative of the patient, live organ transplants require the approval of the Health Ministry.

The ministry is preparing to submit a bill to the Knesset that would give more power to the committees that decide whether organs from live donors who are not relatives can be carried out.

There are religious reasons obstacles as well. Some Jews oppose transplants because they want their bodies intact when the Messiah comes, when some believe that all Jews are brought back to life. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has officially recognized kidney and heart transplants, according to Penchas, but not all rabbis follow this edict.

In addition, he said, many Israelis who are not observant still have a sense that Jews do not want to bury bodies that are “incomplete.”

As a result, Penchas said, “if you get a donor, you empty him,” taking all of the organs and body parts that may be transplantable.

While there is a movement in Israel to write living wills and carry donor cards stating a person’s wishes to be an organ donor, the legalities of these issues have “not been ironed out,” he said.

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