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.-

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Arts and Entertainment
OutKast's Andre 3000 as Jimi Hendrix

film
Arts and Entertainment
Columnist and writer Caitlin Moran

Review: How to Build a Girl

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil