What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
“So what did you do with your placenta and umbilical cord after you gave birth?” I’m coming onto the blossoming revelation that this is a conversation that a lot of women have, these days.
It’s true enough that there are a variety of cultures around the world that have had specific customs pertaining to placentae and umbilical cords going back centuries. Indigenous Hawaiians have been burying their babies’ umbilical cords on Mauna Kea, Japanese mothers and children keep the dried umbilical cord in a special box; Hmong and various Native American cultures have buried placentae as a way of tying the baby to its home or giving it a role in its culture.
But nowadays, American mothers have been catching on to these rituals as well. Some mothers are taking to burying their placenta and planting a tree over it to grow along with their child. American families are having cord-burning ceremonies after a baby is born, during which the family uses what’s called a burn box — a box that has grooves in which to set the umbilical cord and holes for candles — to slowly burn the umbilical cord off, rather than clamping and cutting in less than a minute after birth. Cord burning was historically a usefully sterile way to separate the baby from its placenta, the fire cauterizing the cord and thereby protecting it from infection. That’s not so much of a problem in today’s medical environments, but families who do cord-burning ceremonies say that it’s a nice way to get the whole family involved in the birth process and savor the post-birth moment together.
Then there are lotus births, in which the umbilical cord isn’t severed at all, but rather left to dry out and fall off on its own after the baby is born. It usually takes about three days, and up to a week more in particularly humid climates (think equatorial forests), and yes, that means that the placenta is carried with the baby for that period of time as well. There’s an emotional portion of lotus births that’s worth thinking on — as midwife Mary Ceallaigh puts it, it respects “all of what a woman conceives, not just part of it” in allowing the mother and baby to spend time and get comfortable with the umbilical cord and placenta that accompanied the baby in the womb. But there’s also an argument that’s present in cord-burnings, as well, that by letting the cord fall off on its own, the baby gets all of the extra nutrition that it possibly can from the placenta.
In fact, we don’t know what the ideal time is to separate a baby from its umbilical cord and placenta. The World Health Organization recommends that the umbilical cord not be clamped until at least one minute after the baby is born “for improved maternal and infant health and nutrition outcomes,” but Western hospitals tend, again, to clamp and cut within less than a minute. And, in fact, there’s a whole lot we don’t know about the placenta and umbilical cord in general, especially as they exist in the womb. The Human Placenta Project, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is looking to expand our knowledge on the subject. Cathy Spong from the HPP points out that we tend to do research on placentae only after they’ve been expelled after birth, not while the placenta is developing in the uterus, so we have only “a snapshot” of what’s going on in the womb. “It doesn’t tell us what’s going on with its metabolism, whether it’s providing the baby with the right nutrients and right amount of oxygen, what genes are being turned on, and so on,” she says, adding that with better imaging technology for understanding the uterus than ultrasound, we could predict and prepare for pre-eclampsia, when the placenta detaches from the uterine wall too early.
We also don’t know much about the nutritive benefits of the placenta for mothers. Yes, here’s the part where we start talking about placentophagia, the eating of placentae, often, these days, via a smoothie or pills made from a dried and powderized placenta, or both. New mothers who have struggled with their physical and emotional health, postpartum, have reported that consuming the placenta has nigh worked miracles, from improving their production of breast milk, to improving their skin, to pretty much undoing postpartum depression. It’s no wonder, then, that doctors have been seeing a steep uptick in patients who want to take their placenta home rather than having the hospital whisk it away, preserve it for research in case there’s a complication, and then dispose of it as medical waste, which is considered procedure unless otherwise specified in a birth plan. Placentae are very high in iron, estrogen, progesterone, and about a million other things, so it might be good for new mothers to eat their placenta, or it might not be. We don’t know, because we don’t have the research on whether the reported effects of placentophagia are psychosomatic or physiological.
In the UK, the specialists who produce these placenta products are starting to face a crackdown, too. Health officials are at odds with the Independent Placenta Encapsulation Network (Ipen), claiming health code violations in the preparation of placenta smoothies and pills. Lynnea Shrief at Ipen says that the investigations are happening because:
“They believe that the vagina is highly contaminated with bacteria at birth, and that no one could possibly eat their own placenta. But if that were the case, men would be dropping dead after having sex with their partners left right and centre. To say that the vagina is teeming is bacteria may be true, but it’s the good bacteria, the same stuff we eat in a yoghurt.”
Which makes a good point, although it’s not totally clear that the bacterial characteristics of a placenta are at the root of the investigations, the Swindon Borough Council only saying that “the processes involved in the production of human placenta for human consumption present a number of potentially serious health risks, which explains this action.” Or, in other words, there’s a big we-don’t-know about placenta consumption, a big we-don’t-know about what placentae actually do in the uterus, a big we-don’t-know about umbilical cords and umbilical separation, and a lot of we-don’t-know about the fine details of the female reproductive system in general. That uncertainty, rather than leading most often to research (with the notable exception of the Human Placenta Project), is leading to stigmatization and shut-down.
However, there’s an interesting thing that we do now know about umbilical cords, which is that they produce adult stem cells. And, if specified by the mother or parents, the blood inside an umbilical cord can be donated at no cost to the parents to organizations like the Be the Match Registry, which uses the stem cells in cord blood for transplants. The Cleveland Cord Blood Center has reported saving over 300 lives in Ohio by treating cancers, immune deficiencies, and genetic disorders with stem cells from umbilical cords that would otherwise just be deemed waste and disposed of.
It’s this “waste” thing that gets me, in reading up on placentae and umbilical cords. There are a lot of words that float around when we talk about placenta and umbilical cord practices that don’t treat them like waste, like “crazy,” “bizarre,” “weird,” and “gross,” as if the things that grow inside our bodies are “weird,” so it must be “crazy” to carry them around for three days while you wait for them to dry up. Or like it’s “gross” to eat a human organ that literally exists specifically to provide nutrition to human beings while they’re developing in the uterus, but not at all “bizarre” to eat cow and chicken muscles for some of the same nutrients.
We have all these squicky, uncomfortable feelings about the female reproductive system, all these moral attachments to it, all of these dictates about what the uterus means and how it’s connected to human life. We’re comfortable with — or at least used to — politicians telling women that the uterus and all that happens inside it is equivalent to human life, and that altering it in any way is the same thing as endangering life. And yet by and large, Americans aren’t really comfortable talking about what actually happens inside the uterus, regardless of whether we’re of the conservative bent that wants to equate the uterus and human life, or if we’re of the liberal bent that wants to celebrate reproductive autonomy and be cool with the choices women make before and after birth. We’re not comfortable talking about placentae and umbilical cords and what they do or are, so much so that we don’t even have good imaging technology to help research and prevent uterine conditions that can be fatal for both the mother and the infant.
In saying that placentae and umbilical cords are either medical waste on the one hand, or they’re gross and weird on the other, we’re saying that either way, the female reproductive system is disgusting. We’re distancing ourselves from it. We’re treating it like, no, it’s not sacred, and it’s not worth celebrating, it’s not worth understanding, we just want it out of our collective sight, thanks. That’s no way to honor life, and it’s no way to honor mothers.
If women want to eat or bury their placentae, I say go for it! If they want to keep the umbilical cord attached to their baby until it falls off, or burn it off with candles, or preserve it for decades, it’s not hurting anyone. If they want to donate the blood inside of it to a blood bank, even better! The only bad option of the bunch, to my mind, is treating something that grew inside and was a part of your body like a non-entity, like garbage, like it was useless. That’s just too close to the way our culture perceives women’s bodies in general.
Sources: [CivilBeat] [Japan Times] [National Institutes of Health] [Parents.com] [Today] [New York Post] [xoJane] [World Health Organization] [New Scientist] [NICHD] [WZZM 13][Be the Match] [Chicago Tribune] [19 Action News]