Over the last several years, placentophagy has slowly crept into that vicious public media arena known as “the Mommy Wars.” While placentophagy (the act of ingesting your own placenta after giving birth) has not provoked the same kind of mother-on-mother vitriol that say, breastfeeding has, it has elicited a rather swift and scientifically fueled smack-down on those who have supported it. As a feminist historian of medicine who has written extensively on practices surrounding “natural motherhood,” (particularly breastfeeding), the predictable outlines of this emerging debate have given me reason to suspect that there is more going on here than meets the eye. The familiar battle lines have been drawn, with mothers (mostly white, mostly middle- or upper class) on one side, and scientific experts (mostly white, mostly male) on the other. The gender breakdown alone should give us pause. So before jumping to condemn placentophagy as some baseless “old wives’ tale,” it is worth trying to understand where the practice comes from and to consider what the rise of placentophagy might say about us.
The Edible Placenta
Interest in the use of placentas as a medicinal product has roots in traditional Chinese medicine as well as in the West. Even as Western medicine transitioned into its modern, scientific form over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were some medical practitioners for whom the placenta continued to hold value. Researchers tried grinding, freeze-drying, powdering, and even juicing placentas in the hopes of discovering some concentrated essence with medicinal worth.
These early scientific perspectives and approaches differed markedly, however, from the few accounts by mothers who began practicing placentophagy on their own terms in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Although the first autobiographical account of placentophagy appeared in a 1972 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, the practice was not written about in great detail until 1984. That year, a British midwife named Mary Field wrote about her experience with placentophagy in cringing detail. In her account, which appeared in Midwives Chronicle and Nursing Notes, Field described how she had first learned about placentophagy, why she decided to do it herself, and how she did it.
Field first learned about the practice while watching a 1981 episode of a popular British television call-in show, “Where There’s Life,” in which the hosts talked about medical issues of contemporary relevance. The episode Field referenced had featured a female caller who discussed how her husband had cooked her placenta for her after she gave birth at home, and she subsequently ate it. Though Field had thought the whole idea odd at the time, the memory of the show returned to her after she experienced severe postpartum depression and psychosis following the birth of her first child. She wondered if the placenta, with its hormone-rich tissue, might help alleviate her symptoms if she ate it. Years later while preparing for the birth of her second child, the thought of undergoing another period of protracted mental illness terrified her. “I desperately wanted to avoid postnatal depression,” she wrote. She embarked on a search for natural solutions for postpartum depression, which led her to participate in a workshop on natural childbirth, run by an Australian midwife named Carole Elliot.
Along with information on natural birth methods and breastfeeding as ways to prevent and mitigate postpartum depression, Elliot reportedly told Field that one of her patients had suggested placentophagy as a way to head off more serious issues, like postpartum psychosis. With these ideas percolating in her mind, Field resolved to have a natural homebirth and to eat her placenta in the postpartum hours when she felt her appetite peak. She took comfort in her belief that this was a practice that existed throughout the mammalian kingdom and belonged, in her mind at least, within a long and rich tradition of women taking care of their own reproductive health.
In spite of her dedication to the idea, however, the actual process of eating her placenta proved far more difficult for Field than she had imagined. “My own aversion to bloody, raw meat frustrated me from eating the afterbirth immediately postpartum so it was placed in a large dish and left in the kitchen,” she admitted.
During a quiet moment alone with her sleeping newborn, Field again attempted to eat the placenta raw only to find it nearly psychologically impossible to proceed. Despite her intense revulsion, she persevered. Her first real attempt involved frying a piece: “absolutely horrible!” she exclaimed. She “ate a couple of bits” before throwing away the cooked bits and “even the frying pan.” Her next attempt left her again facing the possibility of eating it raw, which she reported was ultimately “no worse and medicinally better,” than her failed cooking attempt.
Every day for five days Field forced a few bits of her raw placenta down her throat, leaving it in a bowl in her refrigerator. She eventually perfected a technique in which she “[cut] off a small square each time that could be placed at the back of the mouth and swallowed whole without tasting it.” Compared to her first postpartum experience, Field reported that the effects were notable and rewarding. She described a beautiful glow to her skin and hair, having an abundant supply of breast milk, of harboring a ravenous appetite and of basking in a sense of “postnatal euphoria,” that lasted for days.
“Every time I began to feel at all tearful,” she wrote, “I ate a small chunk of raw placenta and found it to be an instant antidepressant.”
Two days after she had finished the placenta, she experienced what she described as her “first real postpartum blues.” Despite the dips in her mood however, she observed that her physical health continued to remain optimal and her postpartum bleeding lasted less than 10 days. Most importantly for Field, she had triumphantly avoided the severe psychotic period that she had struggled with after her first childbirth. Though placentophagy had worked for her, Field told no one until several years later, fearing the response she would receive.
Eating the Self
The late twentieth-century emergence of placentophagy as a countercultural, feminist-inspired, “natural” practice suggests that, even when ground up and dispensed in capsules, ingesting one’s own placenta after birth carries a powerful set of meanings for those who choose to do so. I see the modern interest in placentophagy as a uniquely female posthumanist response to problems of human disconnection, disembodiment and the degradation of “the natural.” Furthermore, like Field, a significant percentage of those who practice placentophagy maintain that it does have notable beneficial effects on their postpartum experiences — everything from boosting milk supply, to slowing postpartum bleeding, to boosting energy levels, and shortening overall postnatal recovery time.
Although anthropological studies have not supported Field’s belief that placentophagy is rooted in the ancient traditions of women, the historical record is notoriously lacking in female voices. It remains to be seen whether combing through old midwifery manuals and women’s diaries may ever yield hard evidence of a female tradition in placentophagy. Even the more recent roots of placentophagy are difficult to pin down, a fact no doubt fueled as much by the unfortunate underrepresentation of women’s practices in the historical record as by the taboo surrounding the ingestion of human body parts. Given the history of the practice and the importance that it has held for those who have utilized it, however, we should consider placentophagy as the embedded, cultural bodywork that it is rather than as the next trendy and anti-scientific fad. The truth is, placentophagy isn’t all that new, and the women who practice it today choose to participate in a practice with established meaning that, for some, transcends the limitations of a strict scientific discourse.