HEALTH / A placenta's life after birth: In some cultures it has long been revered. Women here are now discovering new uses, says Sarah Lonsdale

ONE of the best kept secrets of the maternity ward is coming to an end. A pharmaceutical company has been ordered to stop its practice of collecting human placentas from British hospitals and taking them to France for use in drug manufacture.

Every year between 1976 and 1993 around 360 tons of placenta were collected from British hospitals and taken to France. Mothers were rarely told what happened to the organs that kept their babies alive in the womb, but Merieux UK, the pharmaceutical company collecting the placentas, paid maternity units pounds 5.50 per box of 15 to 18. But profit was not the hospitals' motive. 'It wasn't much money,' said one midwife, 'just enough to pay for the staff Christmas party each year.'

The placentas are used to manufacture the protein albumin for use in emergencies, especially for people who have suffered serious burns. The other drug made from placentas is the enzyme glucoceribrocidase, which is

prescribed for people suffering from a rare genetic disorder called Gaucher's disease which makes their digestive systems unable to break down fats.

Britain has become the first EC country to ban the collection of human placentas, because of new regulations about screening blood products to avoid HIV infection. Merieux fears that if other countries follow suit there will not be enough enzyme to treat Gaucher's disease sufferers; at present only about one third of them receive the correct amount of enzyme.

Many new mothers, no doubt, give no thought to what happens to their afterbirth. Recent medical use, however, has not been the only post-natal function of placentas. In some cultures they are highly valued and even revered. In Ghana and among the Ibo of Nigeria, the placenta is treated as the dead twin of the live baby and given full burial rites. The Seri, a North American Indian tribe, bury it under a tree which is then revered by the child throughout its life. Even in this country, some women take it home to bury it under a favourite tree or plant, says Sheila Kitzinger of the National Childbirth Trust.

In her latest book, Ourselves as Mothers (Bantam, pounds 5.99), she writes: 'The placenta or afterbirth is the object most intimately associated with the baby, . . . so it is often held in reverence. If, for example, it is buried under a tree that tree is thenceforward that child's tree throughout life. In West Africa wise men are called for placental divination. They examine it closely in order to foretell the child's future.'

The West Indian custom of counting the ridges in the cord is closely connected with this: the number of ridges is supposed to indicate the number of children the mother has still to bear. Some believe that anyone obtaining the placenta can get power over the child so it must be carefully hidden.

Another custom that is catching on with some exponents of natural childbirth is placentophagy - eating the placenta. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this can be a natural cure for postnatal depression. Wendy Jackson, who runs antenatal classes, ate her placenta after her third and fourth children were

born. The effects, she says, were astonishing.

'I suffered from terrible postnatal depression after the birth of my first two children, who are now 16 and 12 years old. I felt tearful, overwhelmingly tired and unhappy. I was plagued with the thought that life would never be the same again. I felt terribly, terribly inadequate.' These feelings lasted between the second month after the birth and the seventh.

'When I became pregnant with my third child I made a few enquiries to see whether there was any natural remedy available. I knew that Culpeper, the chain of herbalist shops, offered a freeze-dry placenta service - they don't any longer - so women could sprinkle a bit of their dried, powdered placenta on their food. I had heard of the beneficial effects of eating the placenta, for restoring the hormone balance after the birth. After all, other mammals did it, so why shouldn't I?

'I had my third child, now six, at home. After the birth, the midwife cut off a few very small pieces of placenta and placed them in my mouth. It was like no other taste. If I had to describe it I would say it was like a rich mushroom and wine pate, very creamy and luxurious and not a bit like liver. Then my father, who has a very strong stomach, cut up some more and I ate it with cucumber on rye bread.

'I continued eating it for every meal for about three or four days. I had it fried with bacon and salad. I loved it. I used to wake up at night craving it. When I had finished it, I really missed the first meal I had without it, but after that, I didn't mind. I felt extremely healthy and fit and the dreaded depression never arrived.'

Wendy Jackson did the same with her fourth baby, now three years old; once again she did not experience postnatal depression.

Another mother, Mary Field, also believes that eating the placenta was helpful. 'I feel it kept my hormone levels balanced and so contributed to me feeling fit and healthy after my second birth instead of the dreadful washed- out look and dry skin I had before,' she writes in New Generation, a magazine about childbirth.

Active birth proponents recommend that mothers should not allow the midwife to pull the placenta out. Rather, they should let it come naturally. In her book Active Birth (Unwin, pounds 9.99), Janet Balaskas describes delivering the placenta spontaneously as an 'orgasmic pleasure'.

Despite Merieux's attempts to negotiate with the Department of Health over placenta collection, it is most likely the organ will now be disposed of along with other hospital waste. Yet Ishbel Kargar, of the Association of Radical Midwives, believes the end of placenta collection should be seen as an addition to the rights of women.

'Many women were not informed that their placentas were being used for drug manufacture and would have objected, given the choice,' she says.-

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent