That’s My Placenta! A Survey of Ownership and Activities

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If something is removed from your body, who owns it? The question may gross you out, but it has a serious side. Take for example, the human placenta. A little bio-class refresher: it’s an organ grown by a woman during pregnancy to attach the fetus to her uterus via the umbilical cord. It transfers oxygen, nutrients and hormones to the baby, and removes waste. (So get that-momma’s already feeding and picking up after you even before you’re born! That’s love ladies and gentlemen.)

If a woman gives birth in a hospital, as a majority of women do in the U.S., you’ll likely never see this amazing organ. Many may thank their lucky stars but a growing number are grabbing for a doggie bag–literally and figuratively. There is a growing contingent of families that want to keep the placenta for personal use. Hospitals and governments have policies that run the spectrum from allowing momma access immediately without question, protected by law, to a waiting period or injection of a preservative, or a blanket refusal. However, a lack of uniform policy combined with social stigma creates situations that can be simultaneously comical, sad, devious or hazardous. When faced with an official policy of refusal, some women call a funeral director to have the placenta released then returned to them via straw man. Some find a sympathetic hospital staffer to drop it in a designated biohazard bin then look the other way when the bag disappears. A few are lucky enough to be able to take it home in a cooler with permission. Some need a court order to get their body part released.

Why Want it and Why Would that Be a Problem?

There are a variety of reasons a person would want to keep their placenta, but  I can summarize three main: spiritual practice, placentophagy, and memorabilia. For  many, keeping the placenta has spiritual implications–some cultures believe the soul is attached, or individuals may want to perform their own memorial or ritual by, for example, burying it near a tree so that the tree grows as the child does. There is a beautiful and fascinating book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, that describes the intersection of Hmong culture with western medicine, in which the placenta burial ceremony is depicted. Other people choose to ingest their placenta, either raw, cooked or encapsulated. There’s plenty of googling to be done on this one if you’re interested but I’ll leave that to you and focus instead here on logistics and law. Suffice it to say that many strongly believe in this practice (including yours truly) and believe it can provide healing nutrients, prevent or slow postpartum hemorrhaging  and alleviate baby-blues. Finally, some use the placenta to create art as a way to honor the woman’s body or memorialize a birth. Again, google away if you so choose.

So what’s the problem? Why would Hospital refuse to allow a mother to take home her own organ? Again, no single answer. Hospitals may cite risk of disease due to releasing human tissue full of blood. There could be prejudice to hurdle–utilizing a placenta in private circumstances is not the norm in American culture. There could be a profit incentive for the hospital–placenta is increasingly being used in beauty products for such things as anti-wrinkle creams and shampoos. More altruistically, but also with funding in mind, the placenta is a source of stem cells for medical research.

So Who Owns It? Momma or the Hospital?

I’m going to give you the classic lawyer response on this: “It Depends.” It depends on whether the state you live in has laws that directly address this, or what indirect laws the hospital and department of health choose to apply. It depends on what the placenta is called, or how it’s classified. You can find a survey of law and legal issues here and here.

In 2007 the placenta ownership question made its way to a Nevada courts in Swanson v. Sunrise Hospital. In short, Mom wanted to take her placenta and the hospital refused. Ultimately, the court ordered the hospital to release it (though too late to encapsulate so it was buried instead). But that’s just one case in Las Vegas, Nevada. It probably doesn’t apply to your situation. Precedential persuasion only goes so far, and less so the more “icky” or stigmatized the subject matter.

Hospitals have a tightrope to walk when releasing placentas–honor patient rights and wishes, while protecting themselves from liability. The sympathy a hospital has for momma’s rights will vary state to state, county to county, even hospital to hospital. Further, the official policy of a hospital may not accurately reflect the unofficial practices of staff.

And what’s in a name? The way the placenta is classified can have a bearing on it’s disposition–what a staffer will do once they have it in their hands and who then has access to it. It can be trashed as medical waste, frozen as human tissue, or considered human remains to be picked up by a coroner. With each of these classifications, different laws apply. Compare to other things that are removed from a body: stuff like swallowed change or diamond rings and likely handed over, kidney stones or lukemia cells that will likely be discarded, sperm and ova and organs that can be donated, cord blood that can be banked. You can see the power of a label.

So What If You Want To Keep Your Placenta?

The best bet for keeping your placenta is to give birth outside of a hospital, if it is a safe option for you (consult medical professionals–I am not one). However, if you plan on a hospital birth and want to keep your organ, do your homework:

  • Don’t be shy. Talk to your doctor about his or her thoughts, feelings, and policies. Have they ever heard of this? (Surprising how many have not). Have they ever allowed this before?
  • Call the hospital ahead of time to find out their policies and alert them that you want to keep your placenta. Ask to have it put in your medical chart.
  • Is there anything written down that guides the situation? Find out if there are any local laws, regulations or guidance.–state, regulations, hospital policy. This way, you can find a different hospital if need be. All of these things can be legally challenged, with varying degrees of difficulty. Don’t be surprised if there is nothing.
  • You may need to sign a release. Ask the hospital if they have one or if they require one. They’ll likely have to consult with their legal team. You can hire an attorney to write one and guide you through this process.
  • Likely you’ll be asked why you want your placenta. You don’t have to answer, but it may help the process along. If you’re going to answer, be prepared. Some people are upset by the question, thinking, “It’s mine, why do I have to justify my reasons?” If that’s your position, more power to you, but be prepared to perhaps meet some resistance. Some hospitals may not release your placenta without knowing why (that there is a legit use), because they’re thinking about their own liability or even ethics.
  • Be prepared: If the Hospital will let you take it–how is that going to happen? Are you okay with it being frozen or do you need it raw? Is your cooler ready with your hospital to-go bags? Does this need to be released to someone else as a straw man? Have that person in place. Don’t let it get to the point of needing an emergency court order, where you risk the viability of the placenta.
  • Consult an attorney to help you through the process :)

In Conclusion

Although you may feel strongly that something that comes from your own body belongs to you (and I agree with you), there are public health concerns and social stigma that you are fighting against. This may not be fair or proper, but it is the way it is right now. The best I can say to you is to be prepared to protect your rights. I hope that you are in a friendly environment, but you may not be.

SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING

The Atlantic: Why Some Mothers Choose to Eat Their Placentas; March 22, 2013.

Placenta Benefits website

Patheos.com: Placenta Magic

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