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.-

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'