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Why Women Today Are Eating Their Own Placentas

Why Women Today Are Eating Their Own Placentas

Jun 13 2012
Scripture and church tradition are silent on the practice. But they aren't silent about our need for community.

January Jones ate hers, so why shouldn't you?

In the crunchy-mama circles I happily move in, for years I've heard of women who eat their own placenta—the blood-rich organ that connects an unborn baby to its mother's blood supply—after giving birth, usually in the form of freeze-dried capsules. Placenta-eating, or "placentophagy," is touted by natural-health advocates for supposedly preventing postpartum depression, replacing nutrients that are lost during childbirth, and ensuring a good supply of breastmilk. The practice hit the headlines when Mad Men star Jones admitted to People magazine that she had eaten hers after the birth of her son, Xander.

Critics of placentophagy—including Nancy Redd, who wrote about it for the New York Times's Motherlode blog—say that stories of successful placentophagy are "as anecdotal, and in my case as absurdly off beam, as alien sightings." In her post "I Regret Eating My Placenta," Redd said that after she ingested her dried, encapsulated placenta, she felt "jittery and weird," then entered "tabloid-worthy meltdown mode, a frightening phase filled with tears and rage."

Not to mention that most people think it's just gross.

Jones defended the practice to The Telegraph, noting that "we're the only mammals who don't ingest our own placentas." Her statement isn't quite accurate. Pharmaceutical uses of placentas go back at least to Hippocrates, and appear in traditional Chinese medicines and European folk remedies. Indigenous people in Brazil reportedly cooked and ate the placenta; for centuries throughout Europe, eating the placenta was thought to encourage milk production and help cure infertility. At some point in Europe, attitudes toward the placenta changed, and it came to be regarded with disgust by doctors and churchmen (who, for some reason, really stressed over what Adam and Eve had done with Cain's placenta). Eventually their disgust was shared by everyone; one historian notes that country women didn't even like to see their brooding hens eat the cast-off eggshells, so they'd take them away and hide them.

But even as medicinal uses for placentas faded in Europe, placental significance didn't disappear entirely. A historian in Northern Italy noted that traditional midwives were disgusted by the modern practice of discarding placentas as if they were nothing but waste. Midwives in this region believed that the placenta deserved to be given a respectful burial in the garden. (If nothing else, noted an old midwife, burying the placenta was a "good way to get rid of the husband for an hour" so she could wash the baby and the woman.) Feelings were similar in France and in Germany, notes another historian; it was felt that the placenta, being somehow "a double of the child," couldn't be neglected, and was in those countries usually buried at the foot of a tree.

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