I remember the first time I ever heard of someone eating her baby’s placenta after birth. I was in Northern Minnesota, I was 18 years old, and I was horrified. I could not believe my ears. I never would have guessed that within several years’ time, I would be indirectly involved in a placenta pills scandal.
At the Miami Maternity Center, we provided almost every woman with “placenta pills” after she gave birth. This was thought to help prevent or treat postpartum depression. When I first started working in the clinic I was almost due with my second baby. I saw the little zipper storage bags full of brown pills inside client charts, their name written on the bags in permanent marker. I realized that the vast majority of women were happy to be given these pills and seemed to have no issue with taking them. I decided that I must have been closed-minded before, when I thought eating your placenta was gross.
When I gave birth to my daughter, the head midwife asked me, “Do you want your placenta pills?” I put an apologetic look on my face and said, “I’m sorry, I just really don’t want them; I’m just not totally comfortable with it.” She replied, “You don’t have to apologize to me, I wouldn’t eat that shit.”
Several weeks later I was initiated into our procedure for the manufacture of placenta pills. After a birth, we would examine the placenta. Then, we would either cut or tear pieces of the “meat” out of it, and place it, raw, in an ordinary food dehydrator (the kind most people might use to make fruit leather) in “the placenta room.” A couple days later, whoever was on night shift would come over to grind the dried pieces in a coffee grinder. The powder was poured into a bag and taken back over to the clinic building. There, we would put the powder into gelatin capsules, put the capsules back into the bag, and put it in the client’s chart to be delivered to her.
The first time that it was my job to grind the pieces, I was working very hard to clean the grinder thoroughly between different women’s placentas. A senior student walked in on me doing this and asked, “What are you doing?” as if I were doing something ridiculous. She then instructed me that we do not clean the grinder in between. We go straight from dumping the powder of one placenta out, to putting the chunks of a different placenta in. I asked, “What about cross contamination?” She looked at me and shrugged. This was how it was done.
The dehydrator likewise was not thoroughly cleaned between uses; we would soak it in the sink, and scrub it with a brush, but it was never totally clean. The dehydrator had several levels. After a busy few days, it was not unusual for the placentas of several different women to be drying together in the same dehydrator, layers stacked on layers. Is it possible that hepatitis or HIV could have been spread in that dirty dehydrator? I just don’t know.
Why did I go along with it? It seems crazy now. It really seems crazy. But at the time, it somehow just seemed like part of a package deal that I had already bought. Everyone around me was doing it. The women were taking the pills and they seemed to be doing fine. If I didn’t do it, someone else was just going to do it, and I would get in trouble for not getting my chores done. No one else seemed to have a problem with any of this, so any misgivings I had seemed like they must be wrong. I can tell you that I never once regretted not taking placenta pills myself!
Within a year after I left, the birth center got in big trouble for manufacturing placenta pills. Twenty-two law enforcement agents from four different government agencies raided the birth center and seized client charts and placenta pill manufacturing equipment. Criminal charges were filed. I believe that the Miami Maternity Center ceased all production of placenta pills at that point.
When I moved to South Carolina and started practicing, clients would ask me about placenta pills. I told them that I had extensive experience making them and that if they wanted to do it, I could show them how. I also met local placenta encapsulation specialists who offered their services for a fee. They charged quite a bit (average $150 per placenta) but they seemed to have much higher standards for hygiene than what we did in Miami. I didn’t want to seem “uncool” to clients or to the encapsulation specialists, and I had become desensitized to placenta pills in general. I would tell clients that I thought that the benefits might just be placebo, but that taking the placenta pills couldn’t hurt.
My belief that it “couldn’t hurt” was based on pretty much nothing. Placentas routinely become contaminated with bacteria upon delivery and in the moments after. To safely dehydrate any meat, it is supposed to be cooked carefully first. Even if a placenta is thoroughly cooked, it may still be unsafe: here is a very interesting look at the possible dangers of consuming your placenta.
I regret my participation in the manufacture of placenta pills and I apologize to anyone that I involved in it. There is no evidence that placenta pills are safe or effective, and they could be dangerous. You are much better off eating some beef liver. If you are worried about or struggling with postpartum depression, please consult your healthcare provider; there are safe and effective treatments available.