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After giving birth, some women eat the placenta or afterbirth for reasons ranging from cultural tradition to the belief it confers medical benefits. Texas just became the third state to pass a law guaranteeing women the right to take the placenta home with them from the hospital. Carrie Feibel at Houston Public Media looks into the laws around placenta possession and whether eating them is really a good idea.
CARRIE FEIBEL: Melissa Mathis gave birth last year in Dallas. And along with her daughter Betsy, she wanted to take the placenta home from the hospital, too.
MELISSA MATHIS: As far as I was concerned, it's a part of my body that was in my body. So it wasn’t like something - it didn’t really feel that strange to me.
FEIBEL: Like many women, Mathis had heard through friends about eating a little placenta every day in the weeks after giving birth. The placenta, sometimes called the afterbirth, is typically dehydrated, ground up, and put into edible capsules. Many midwives and doulas believe that because the placenta grows along with the fetus, it contains hormones and nutrients that can help a woman recover from childbirth. Some say it helps women breastfeed or can prevent postpartum depression. Mathis took the capsules for six weeks.
MATHIS: It’s hard for me to know what the effects were because I don’t have anything to compare it to. But, I mean, I had great success breastfeeding, I had no problems with emotional instability. I definitely feel that it helped me.
FEIBEL: Mathis says the hardest part was just getting her placenta in the first place. Texas classifies the placenta as medical waste. And hospitals have liability concerns because placentas could carry infectious disease. But Mathis was determined to get it. Just after giving birth, she and her husband waited until nobody was looking.
MATHIS: And we got it and put it in a cooler and threw it in a backpack. And my husband, you know, handed it off to the placenta handler in the lobby of the hospital. And that’s not ideal, you know? And in my opinion, that’s not acceptable.
FEIBEL: Mathis talked about it with her state representative, Dallas Republican Kenneth Sheets.
KENNETH SHEETS: Well, it seemed like an issue of freedom and liberty and just a basic right, so we decided that we’d take it on.
FEIBEL: Sheets wrote the new law that allows women to keep the placenta if they sign a waiver and don’t test positive for infectious disease. Texas is the third state in less than a decade to put a placenta law on the books. The first were Hawaii and then Oregon. And yet, medical experts say there’s no scientific evidence behind all the health claims. Anecdotally, some women say the placenta helped them, but experts say it’s probably just a placebo effect.
CATHERINE SPONG: We don't have any studies on this.
FEIBEL: That’s Dr. Catherine Spong, deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Spong is much more interested in how the placenta functions during pregnancy, not after.
SPONG: The placenta is really the lifeline. It serves as the baby’s lungs, as the baby’s kidney, it has functions of the liver, of the GI tract. And interestingly, it also has immune functions and endocrine functions.
FEIBEL: Spong says her institute will spend $44 million dollars on placenta research over the next few years. Spong didn’t feel comfortable offering an opinion on moms who eat placenta, simply reiterating that science doesn’t support it.
But Mark Kristal does have an opinion. Kristal is a behavioral neuroscientist with the State University of New York at Buffalo. He's been studying placenta-eating in mammals for 43 years.
MARK KRISTAL: The overwhelming majority of mammalian placental mothers ingest after birth.
FEIBEL: In fact, many women point to this as evidence that humans should do it, too. But Kristal says not so fast. The reason many mammals do it is because there’s a chemical substance in amniotic fluid and placenta that provides pain relief during birth. Kristal discovered it.
KRISTAL: It boosts the effectiveness specifically of opiate painkillers.
FEIBEL: So wouldn't this work in humans? Kristal says the chemical is there in human placenta, but it’s fragile. Cooking and encapsulating placenta would actually destroy it. Kristal says eating it raw isn’t a good idea either. Since placentas are also filters, there may be waste products in our placenta that are harmful or toxic. In fact, he believes humans have evolved away from eating placenta.
KRISTAL: It’s not a routine human behavior and, on the contrary, there are a lot of cultures that have developed taboos against doing it.
FEIBEL: Kristal speculates evolution has provided women with something else to deal with the pain of childbirth, and that’s the company of other people. Most mammals that eat placenta give birth unassisted - but not humans.
KRISTAL: The advantage of socially-assisted birth is not only to help the mother, but it's also to pass information about childbirth from older, more experienced women to younger, less experienced women who might be helping. And so the human data bank grows by this social experience.
FEIBEL: Dallas mom Melissa Mathis says she’s open to hearing more science about the placenta. But until then, she wants to decide for herself.
MATHIS: It's our freedom to choose what we're going to do with our own bodies.
FEIBEL: Texas hospitals will start releasing placenta in 2016. For NPR News, I’m Carrie Feibel in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.