Today we have a guest post from Kelly Gray, a mother, full spectrum doula, childbirth educator and one of the founders of the Bay Area Doula Project. She grew up as a union organizer for public sector healthcare workers and has a passion for redefining healthcare access, models and justice. When she's not helping women take charge of their reproductive lives, she's guiding her fiery daughter to harness her innate powers or collecting reproductive stories for her audio website Stories From The Womb. You can read more about her childbirth education classes or doula work at www.ninemoonsdoula.com or find out how to have your placenta encapsulated at Bay Area Full Circle Placenta Services.
Placenta Justice: A Call To Recognize The Placenta
By Kelly Gray
Justice, by definition, allows us to create a system that upholds individual or cultural conduct defined by morals or equitable behavior.
In the reproductive justice movement we examine access to services and deem any obtrusion to choice, access, or service as unjust. We work to create inclusion for all people and all experiences. And rightly so! Currently, 1-3 women die in hospital births every day and this number is primarily made up of poor women and women of color. We see these injustices played out psychologically and physiologically, from forced cesareans and sterilizations, withholding abortions, lack of midwifery care or informed consent, bullying, needless interventions, withholdings based on gender and racial stereotyping, and so on. Thus, we should aim to hold the same lens to all reproductive experiences, including the often ignored birth and after life of a placenta.
The majority of American people have hospital births where interventions are high and compassionate care is low, despite recent studies that confirm that more interventions do not lead to healthier outcomes for fetal, infant or maternal health. Sadly, it seems that the medical industry’s approach to birth is too much “care” in the form of interventions at inappropriate times, and lack of compassionate care when it matters most, such as quality time with a provider, home visits, adequate education about choices, and collaborative decision making. Following hospital birth, the standard model of care is to discard the placenta even though there is potential for the placenta to greatly heal the postpartum body and in turn support the infant.
What exactly is this placenta and what purpose does it serve prior to birth? Placentas are created in utero alongside the fetus. The placenta lines the uterine walls and partially envelops the baby while blood, oxygen and nutrients flow between mother and child. Fetal waste material is filtered and sent away. Essentially, the placenta acts as liver and lungs for the baby until the time of birth, and then, even after birth for a few minutes if the umbilical cord is left intact. The placenta is born following the infant as the uterus continues to contract and shrink back to its original size. This is true of all mammals. What is also true of all mammals (except camels), despite access to food, shelter or protection, is that they immediately consume their placenta following birth.
As mentioned earlier, our current birth culture spends very little time discussing, studying, or practicing the benefits of proper placenta birth techniques (cord traction, manual removal, etc.), the emotional benefits of keeping the placenta, and the physiological and emotional benefits of consuming the placenta. Despite the longstanding tradition within Traditional Chinese Medicine of placenta consumption, Western medicine has done little research into the effects of eating placenta for new mothers. However, if you talk to mothers, midwives, many OBs, doulas and other birth workers who have consumed placenta, it becomes clear that there is an incentive to do so; a healthy and peaceful mom equals a healthy and peaceful baby equals a healthy and peaceful community and so on.
Placentas contain vital nutrients that replenish a mother’s depleted postpartum body. The placenta, dense with blood, hormones and minerals, completes the birth cycle and restores iron and hormone levels. Mothers report increases in milk production and energy while at the same time a decrease in anemia, fatigue and postpartum depression.
As individuals and as a society we pay greatly when mothers can’t successfully breastfeed their children; we pay in present time with lactation consultants and gear, and we pay big money to the formula industry. In 2008, taxpayers paid $627 million for WIC, a federal program that distributes half of the formula in the country to low income women. The potential increase in milk production resulting from the consumption of one's placenta could have many positive impacts for low-income mothers who are often targeted aggressively by the formula industry.
The birth and consumption of ones placenta should be given the honor to stand on its own as an individual reproductive experience. It marks the visible connection between the watery in utero world and the world that exists between mother and child. It is the last stage of birth, and one of the first stages of new parenting. When we lack tradition and healthy practices around reproductive experiences then we lack justice. When we lack connection to our own bodies and hand over the keys to industries based on creating financial capital then we lack justice.
Not every person should consume their placenta. There are reasons, such as infection or medications administered during birth, where the consumption of placenta is not advised. It is a choice that every person should make for themselves, based on intuition, desires, culture and health.
Our hospitals' hazardous waste bins are filled with organs that bring love, life and health into the world that new families inhabit, so each and every time someone gives birth the question should be, “Would you like to take home your placenta?” That would be reproductive justice in action. Despite income disadvantages, education disparities, and health outcomes, one thing we know is that after every baby comes a placenta, and this is an opportunity to engage the mother with her own health, vitality, and reproductive experience.
"Rates of labor induction and primary cesarean delivery do not correlate with rates of adverse neonatal outcome in level I hospitals" (Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine)
"Study Finds Adverse Effects of Pitocin in Newborns" (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists)
"Masking Maternal Mortality" (Ina May Gaskin)
"Market Failure and the Poverty of New Drugs in Maternal Health" (PLOS Medicine)
"Infant-Formula Companies Milk U.S. Food Program" (Women's eNews)