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.
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?