If you have been born, you have had intimate bodily contact with a placenta. The placenta was likely the most important thing in your world until you left the womb, but chances are good that you haven't given it much thought since that day. In a recent article published in the New York Times, writer Denise Grady expressed shock that so little is known about the placenta by scientists as well as the general public. In his book Life's Vital Link, Y.W. Loke says that "many people do not know what the placenta is, let alone what it is for." Of those people who do know about the placenta, there is veritable war going on, and the battlegrounds are hidden in plain sight. Hospital wards, research laboratories, and living rooms are all sites of intense placental debate, much of which is focused on one question: to eat or not to eat?
Consuming the placenta, scientifically known as placentophagy, is a complex issue which raises questions of maternal and fetal identity, bodily ownership, models for women's healthcare, and the function of disgust in the regulation of what we eat and who we are. It challenges the borders between food, medicine, and flesh. The post-birth placenta is an object on the edge, not quite living or dead, not quite part of the baby or the mother, trapped in between desire and disgust.
On one hand, the medical community is using disgust to discourage mothers from eating their placentas, and on the other hand, they appropriate those placentas for pharmaceutical research. The natural birth movement utilizes narratives of pride to encourage placenta-eating, but leaves little room for more mainstream birth experiences. The majority of women are left out of the discussion entirely. In order to open women's access to placental healing, we need to develop a new way of thinking about the placenta and what it can provide.
Feminist theorists have yet to consider placentophagy, though the uniquely marginalized experience of eating placenta exposes the hidden forces of patriarchal culture. As Donna Haraway writes in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, women's "troubling talent for making other bodies" continues to be central to lived sexual inequality. The forces of medico-capitalism are being pitted against women's reproductive health in a dramatic clash that reveals the implicit misogyny of mainstream medicine. As Elspeth Probyn writes, "food and its relation to bodies is fundamentally about power." The placenta is both food and body, and we should not underestimate the potential it holds for powerful new modes of understanding.
As evidenced by the buzz of recent media attention, the public is starting to ask questions about the human placenta. Both the New York Times and The Washington Post have published articles about the placenta within the last year. Shock and curiosity at eating afterbirth, has got people questioning the standard placenta protocol. Should we really be sending the organ to the incinerator as soon as it leaves the body? To answer this question, we need some context. So here is the quick and dirty low-down, placenta 101.
The word "placenta" is derived from the Latin word for cake, or possibly flatbread. This etymology is likely due to the shape of the placenta, but I find it noteworthy that, in its naming, the placenta is already related to food. Anatomically speaking, the placenta is the roughly disc-shaped organ which grows in the womb, and facilitates blood flow between the maternal and fetal systems during pregnancy.
All mammal species produce placentas, and every human being has been attached to one. The fetus grows within the membranes of the placenta (or amniotic sac), and is attached to the placenta via the umbilical cord.
The placenta has many known functions including nourishment of the fetus, protection from pathogens, and temperature and endocrine regulation. Researchers have found that the placenta produces as many, or more, endocrine and immune-system molecules than any other organ, except maybe the brain. This means that babies are born with immunity to many of the diseases that the mother has encountered in her lifetime. It also indicates that the post-birth placenta likely still contains these helpful molecules, which could be re-absorbed by eating.
The placenta is the point of connection, the translator in the 40 week conversation between mother and fetus. The placenta is the physical embodiment of the interdependence of human life, and as such, threatens liberal ideals of autonomy, upon which so much of our society is premised. Feminist scholars Emily Martin and Barbara Katz Rothman elucidate how birth has become a microcosm of liberal capitalism. Rothman writes that pregnant women have become "the unskilled workers on a reproductive assembly line," and, as in all capitalist systems, alienation emerges as the overarching theme in modern obstetrics. For the purposes of this paper, I wish to emphasize the way in which midwifery care, particularly in regards to the placenta, rejects the patriarchal alienation of woman from her body and her baby.
I use the term "motherbaby" to reinforce the interdependent and co-creative nature of the maternal-fetal relationship. That the motherbaby should not be treated as two separate beings is argued by Adrienne Rich, and is a central tenant of traditional midwifery care. In order to reframe the placenta as something valuable, we must challenge the forces of medico-capitalism that alienate mothers from all products of their labor.