China says it plans to phase out the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners, ending a controversial practice that reportedly supplies most of the country's transplant patients.

Huang Jiefu, a surgeon and former deputy health minister who is in charge of organ transplants, says that beginning in November, China will scale back and eliminate the harvesting of inmate organs. Huang says that will be replaced by a nationwide voluntary donor system.

For years, Beijing denied that it routinely took organs from executed prisoners before finally acknowledging it a few years ago. The practice is widely regarded as unethical and has been a black eye for the Chinese medical establishment.

Although the number of executed prisoners is a state secret in China, human rights groups estimate the country executes thousands of people each year.

The New York Times reports:

"By the end of 2012, about 64 percent of transplanted organs in China came from executed prisoners; the ratio has dipped to under 54 percent so far this year, according to figures provided by Mr. Huang."

Huang tells Reuters that more than 150 Chinese hospitals are expected to participate.

"I am confident that before long, all accredited hospitals will forfeit the use of prisoner organs," he told the news agency on Thursday.

But officials are likely to face an uphill battle in trying to maintain the supply of organs voluntarily. The Atlantic, in a report in July, said in a three-year trial of a voluntary system at 164 transplant hospitals, only 659 people donated 1,804 major organs.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit