Placenta capsules. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kestler of Hill Country Placentas. (All other photos by author, unless otherwise stated.)
Sara Petit-McClure had just given birth to a pink-cheeked baby girl in Austin, Texas, when her husband asked the nurses if they could have some alone time with their new daughter. When they left, he went to the medical wastebin, grabbed the blue plastic sheet, and upended its contents into an ice chest that he had brought along. Then he sealed it and strolled out of the hospital, secretly carrying Petit-McClure's placenta inside.
Like a growing number of women, Petit-McClure wanted to have her placenta dehydrated and encapsulated. Placenta consumption is rumored to improve milk production, balance hormones, support vaginal healing, and ward off postpartum depression. But when Petit-McClure asked her hospital if she could take her placenta home, they told her she had two options: She could get a court order for it, which would cost $250, or she could arrange to have it sent to a morgue (a loophole in the health code allows hospitals to release placentas to funeral directors), which would cost only slightly less.
"It made no sense to us," Petit-McClure remembers thinking. So she spoke with friends who had given birth in the same hospital to see if there were any other options. "They said that they stole it with the help of their doula." That's when Petit-McClure decided to steal hers, too.
A raw placenta pre-encapsulation from Feel Good Placenta. (Click photo for un-obscured image)
Placenta encapsulation is nothing new. Celebrities like January Jones and Natasha Hamilton thrust the practice into the public eye when they encapsulated theirs post-pregnancy, and we wrote about the process last year. Valerie Rosas, an encapsulator in Los Angeles, has performed almost 200 placenta encapsulations already this year—and she's even had to turn away clients because the demand is so high. Rosas treats each placenta like a work of art, photographing them and imprinting them onto watercolor paper, and twisting the umbilical cord into a keepsake ornament. From her home near Venice Beach, she transforms placentas into capsules, tinctures, salves, smoothies, or even meatballs. She recently got a request to turn a placenta into a haircare product and another to create a teddy bear from the skin of the organ.
But if placenta encapsulation is becoming a trend, it's also highlighted the tug-of-war between women and hospitals fighting over who gets to keep the organ. There are very few states with clear-cut laws on which parts of your body you lawfully own, meaning that hospitals can decide on a case-by-case basis what you're allowed to take home (from your tonsils in a jar to the remnants of your appendix after surgery.) When it comes to placentas, some states have come up with decisive policies—in Indiana, for example, placentas are legally considered "medical waste," along with catheters, tubes of blood, and "grossly spoiled disposables," so it's illegal for women to take them home postpartum. In Oregon and Hawaii, women are legally guaranteed the right to take home their placentas, thanks to recent legislation. But everywhere else, it's a legal gray area.
That's why in states like Texas, where Petit-McClure gave birth, hospitals have a reputation for being hostile toward women who ask to take home their placentas. "As crunchy as Austin is, all of their hospitals require court orders," says Carrie Ahr, a placenta encapsulator in central Texas. "Dallas is really bad."
It's not just that hospitals make it difficult for women—lacking statewide regulations, Ahr said that hospitals can arbitrarily change their policies or outright refuse to let women have their placentas. She recalls clients who have been told that taking home their placentas is illegal in Texas (it isn't), and recently one of her clients gave birth at a Scott & White Hospital in Texas only to discover that they had changed their policy and now required that the mother present a court order to have it, even though they had previously told her that she didn't need one.
"The day she birthed her son, she was in the courthouse trying to get a court order for her placenta," Ahr recalled. "It's so difficult and expensive to do that, and I felt so bad that I hadn't been privy to the change."
Placenta capsules. Photo courtesy of Brenda Ojala of Placenta Works
Lisa Kestler, who has encapsulated over 400 placentas, says this experience isn't uncommon. "We've even had placentas at the hospitals where the funeral director goes to pick up the placenta and the placenta is 'accidentally' thrown away," she told me. And "some Baylor Hospitals won't even release to moms with a court order."
If it isn't legally defined, then why are hospitals so reluctant to give women their placentas? Ahr thinks the issue ought to be as simple as releasing the hospital of its legal responsibility, which they should be able to do with a signed waiver. "Then they couldn't be held liable. Like, 'Please don't sue us if you take your placenta home and choose to eat it.'"
Liability is certainly part of the issue, but it's not the whole story, according to Dr. Mark Kristal, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Buffalo. Dr. Kristal is recognized as the foremost expert on placentophagia (consuming one's own placenta) and he points out that hospitals don't want to be accountable for the effects of placenta encapsulation, especially since there aren't any scientific studies on the effects of placenta encapsulation. (There was a survey from 2013 that suggested that most women who consumed their placentas had positive experiences, but the population of this survey was likely self-selecting.)
Despite the benefits that women report from their placentas, we don't know very much about the organ itself. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has called the placenta "the least understood human organ and arguably one of the more important, not only for the health of a woman and her fetus during pregnancy but also for the lifelong health of both."
Valerie Rosas wears an "I Heart Placenta" apron as she prepares a placenta for dehydration (Click photo for un-obscured image)
What we do know about placentas is that they're incredibly valuable—not just for new mothers, but for biomedical research. Dr. Kristal pointed out, with slight hesitancy, that research hospitals could have a financial motive to keeping women's placentas given that "a lot of bigger hospitals have—or, at least, had—contracts with pharmaceutical and cosmetic houses to sell the placentas." The hospitals I spoke with denied this allegation, but it's perhaps worth noting that Baylor Hospitals—which is notorious for refusing to let moms take home their placentas—is also part of a national study to evaluate the efficacy of using cells derived from human placenta to treat Crohn's disease. (Baylor would not return my calls for comment.) Placentas have been proposed as a viable alternative to stem cells in biomedical research, and a hospital in the UK came under fire several years ago when it was discovered that they were selling discarded placentas to a biomedical company.
Given the ambiguity of placenta policies, some women—like Anne Swanson—have taken their experiences to court in an attempt to coax legal change. Swanson, who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, had planned a homebirth when she was pregnant in 2007. But when her baby took a turn, she had to transfer to Sunrise Medical Center for a C-section. Swanson was forthright about her intention to keep her placenta: "I reiterated my request several times to different nurses and to the surgeon once he entered the operating room. I again asked for the placenta as my daughter's cord was cut and as her placenta was removed from my body. My husband and I reminded my postpartum nurse frequently that we wanted it and asked when it would be returned to us." She had also brought along signed legal documents, which released the hospital of any liability.
Placenta artwork. Photo courtesy of Brenda Ojala of Placenta Works
But the nurses gave her wishy-washy answers. "I was constantly told that it wasn't a standard request and that they, the nurses, would pass my request along." Eventually, a hospital risk management lawyer arrived to tell Swanson she couldn't have it, as her placenta would be considered "medical waste." (There is no law in Nevada that necessitates this.)
Swanson left sans placenta, but told the hospital that she would be seeking an injunction and asked that they freeze her placenta, to preserve it, until she could reclaim it. It took three months of court battles for Swanson to finally have her placenta released to her—but when she went to collect it, Sunrise Medical Center informed her that the placenta had been "cross-contaminated with another patient's medical waste" before it had been frozen, rendering it useless to her.
There's a silver lining, though: Because of the growing popularity of placenta encapsulation, there's increasing pressure on states and hospitals to revise their policies. Although Sunrise Medical Center insisted that Swanson's case was an "isolated" incident at the time, they revised their hospital-wide policy about a year later, and now allow moms to take home their placentas without a court order. Other states are adopting similar laws, too. Until 2010, many New York hospitals would only release placentas to funeral directors, a policy that has since been revised. Other hospitals and birthing centers, like this one in Dayton, Ohio, require mothers to wait 72 hours before they can take home their placenta—a timeframe that's largely arbitrary, but still allows access to persistent moms.
Placenta capsules. Photo courtesy of Brenda Ojala of Placenta Works
Other encapsulators say that, as the practice becomes more widespread, more hospitals are aware of women's interest in keeping their placentas and are easier to negotiate with. Brenda Ojala, a veteran placenta encapsulator in North Carolina, told me she's never lost a placenta in the seven years that she's been in this line of work, though she does bring hospital liability release forms to each birth. Rosas told me she's never had a problem picking up a placenta in Los Angeles, either. But they both say that taking home your placenta should be your right—not something left to the discretion of an individual nurse or doctor.
Kestler, who encapsulates in central Texas, went so far as to call this a "civil rights issue." She believes the final word should come from statewide laws, like the ones in Oregon and Hawaii, that secure a woman's right to go home with her placenta. "If you can take your tonsils home," she suggested, "why not your placenta?"
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