Placenta Power In The News

Two news stories featuring the placenta have appeared in the mainstream media within a month. One in the Science Section of The New York Times (7/14/14) and one in The Washington Post (8/ 5/14) The Times story entitled, “The push to understand the placenta,” describes new research on the amazing capacities of the little known organ; The Post story gives accounts of emerging practices involving the placenta as afterbirth. Some American women with the help of midwives are following the lead of those cultures that celebrate the therapeutic value of the placenta after birth. They devise ways to symbolically commemorate it, bury it, or even ingest it in processed forms. Cooked, ground, dried or encapsulated placental pills are consumed in search of physical and/or psychological benefits. More energy, more abundant milk flow, less postpartum depression perhaps?

The scientists engaged in studying the long ignored placenta are aiming to understand its remarkable powers and thereby be able to correct unknown malfunctions leading to infertility and miscarriage. They express awe at an organ that so rapidly grows from the fertilized embryo and then can act as its lungs, nutrient and waste systems. These new scientific attitudes are inspiring plans for a National Placental Project. All women and all babies will benefit from these achievements of science.

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But why, a feminist may complain, has it taken scientists so long to direct their attention to this aspect of women’s bodies and feminine procreative power? And why are negative images and concepts found in the language used by researchers and reporters? In the Times the fertilized embryo’s generation of the placenta is described as “an invasion,” “a parasite,” “cells storming the uterus like an invading army.” The placenta is “commandeering a woman’s body for nine months.” These “weirdly powerful” cells are analogized as like those of “cancer.” How fearsome and disgusting. Husbands in delivery room are reported as fainting at the sight of the bloody placenta or afterbirth. “The pulpy blog of an organ” that remodels arteries is said by one scientific researcher to be like “some monster thing from the deep chasm of the sea.”

These words reveal traces of our culture’s remaining ambivalence toward female bodies, sexual reproduction, embryos and pregnant women’s procreative powers. Invading embryos are enslaving women’s bodies who remain as passive victims. Interdependence of physically entwined lives is not enhancing but only burdensome. Alas, shall we never get our stance toward women and reproductive bodies in right balance? 

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Marie Rehbein
3 years 5 months ago
While it may be going overboard to describe the placenta as "some monster thing", it is equally incorrect to give the impression that the placenta or the embryo exist in interdependence with the woman's body. The woman's body does not benefit from carrying either an embryo or a placenta. To claim this diminishes the physical sacrifice that childbearing is. If respect cannot come from acknowledging the facts, but only from creating some placenta based myth about some as yet undiscovered magic-like properties, then the author's desire for "right balance" will not be found.
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
3 years 5 months ago
I think it is always great when medicine is looking for ways to improve women's lives and reproductive health. As a young mother (well, 30 somethingish, which is "young" by NYC standards) of a toddler and new baby, I've had some intimate experience of what my body is capable of in the past few years. And you are right, that the language we use about women's bodies matters. That said, I am just as leery, if not more so, of language that "over-sacralizes" the reproductive aspect of a woman's body than I am of language like that in the Times article. I am sure at some point I jokingly referred to my (much loved and very wanted) fetuses as "invading parasites", because that is what they felt like sometimes. Often language that "over-sacralizes" in "awe" at a fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding isn't used to build women up, it is used to judge, shame, and silence the complex experiences of women who find these functions to also be messy, burdensome, dangerous, frightening, painful, gross, funny, and occasionally ridiculous. It is often used to idolize all things "natural" as "real femininity" and question whether those of use who love epidurals and baby formula and getting every doctor ordered test and ultrasound available are really into our womanhood enough. Morning sickness was horrible. It was followed by all sorts of other unpleasantries in the next few months. With my second, it all ended in a terrifying bloodbath of precipitous labor that was shorter than the express from Grand Central to Fairfield and felt like being disembowled and set on fire at the same time. I would rather be knocked out with a crowbar than be conscious to experience that episode of Animal Planet again. Afterwards, I wanted the bloody mess gone and clean sheets. And some pancakes. Is it all worth it? Yes. I love my daughters. But I think some of the ambivalence you speak of often comes from women themselves. And that ambivalence does not make them less womanly or out of balance. Women's reproductive bodies aren't something "in balance". They are as messy and chaotic and out of balance as the formlessness before God created (or shall I say give birth to?) the universe.

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