A lot of new moms are getting into the practice of taking their placentas home after their babies are done using them, on account of being born at all. What they do with the incredible organ after they actually get it safely home in a Styrofoam cooler varies: Some people opt to make placenta prints, others bury them in the garden, and still others have a little nosh for its purported health benefits.
Those women have a few hurdles to overcome, like finding the right smoothie recipe or figuring out how long the organ will keep. One hurdle, though, seems like a given: How do you get the hospital to cough up the goods? Usually you just scribble a little note that clarifies your intention to keep your placenta, and all’s well that ends well. Not so in the case of Mississippi mom Jordan Thiering, who found herself navigating a bizarre court battle just so she could keep something her hospital was planning to throw away.
Holding on to a placenta after childbirth is far from new. Indigenous cultures, like the Maori and Navajo, have long buried the placenta after birth for culturally significant reasons. Placentophagy has been a similarly long-standing practice in various parts of the world, where ingesting dried or powdered placenta bits is believed to do everything from increase reproductive health to preserve a child’s life.
In the West, on the other hand, the placenta has typically been discarded after birth, but the practice of keeping it to ingest in various forms is a trend that’s enjoying a bit of an upswing. There are dubious claims that encapsulated placenta or placenta jerky can fix any number of postpartum maladies, including decreasing recovery time or easing postpartum depression.
That’s part of what Thiering found so appealing about keeping her own placenta. Those claims don’t really have scientific backing yet, but like a lot of moms, Thiering figured that if its benefits proved true, that would be awesome, but if they didn’t, well, there’s no harm in ingesting placenta. So she decided to encapsulate hers and let her OB-GYN know what she planned to do. Her doctor told her to call and check with the hospital to make sure everything would go smoothly.
It did not.
Thiering was told that to have her placenta released to her upon discharge from the hospital, she’d have to get a court order. Placentas are considered medical waste, and medical waste disposal is strictly regulated. Thiering was shocked. It’s not as though she was asking to keep her appendix or a bundle of hypodermic needles, so what was the problem?
With the help of a lawyer, though, she was able to successfully petition the court for the right to her own placenta, and the judge ruled in her favor. When Thiering gives birth, she’ll be able to take both baby and placenta home, which is awesome.
The attitude that surrounds the way we give birth in America is changing. Modern medicine is a fantastic thing that has saved countless women’s and children’s lives when it comes to giving birth, and we owe much to the institution. But women can also easily feel as though their labor and delivery process is little more than an illness to be swiftly dealt with. Mom in, baby out, wipe it all down, bring on the next one. They can feel ignored or, worse, in the hands of a skilled but ruthlessly efficient medical team.
It’s why there’s been a rise in doula-attended births and why midwife deliveries have become more appealing. Having a baby is life-changing. It’s not like removing a gall bladder or fixing a torn tendon, and in cases like this, where a placenta is treated like a blood-soaked gauze pad, it can definitely feel that way. What’s sad about that is that it becomes a zero-sum sort of game. It feels like crunchy earth mamas versus modern obstetrics, with shouty flame wars on both sides, and it really doesn’t need to be like that.
There’s no harm in ingesting placenta, despite the fact that it might do precisely bubkes for a postpartum woman. If someone wants to spend the time and money having it prepared, it hurts no one in the end. Even if the physical benefits amount to nothing, there could be a net positive emotional benefit if you felt that your desire to partake was supported, even if it isn’t facilitated. That’s because women feel less infantilized when they are allowed to make even these small decisions when it comes to giving birth.
On the other hand, when hospitals and health departments wrinkle their noses and throw up barriers to something as simple and increasingly more popular as placenta release, it feels like one more way we are not allowed to have a say in what happens to our bodies.
Thiering told USA Today that she hopes her court case will make it easier for other women to gain access to their placentas, and we do to. Whether or not you buy into the placenta hype, the more modern medicine and the schools of thought that allow women more autonomy with their bodies can come together, the more we’ll all benefit.