Jennifer Hughes’s placenta was delivered ten minutes after her first child, just before midnight on March 31. It was on the large side, with a liverish texture and a bluish tinge; it measured nine inches in diameter and weighed a pound and a half. Placentas are considered biohazardous waste by the medical Establishment and are usually disposed of accordingly. Some hospitals send the afterbirth in formaldehyde to a pathology lab for analysis before it is carted off by a tissue-disposal service; others toss it out with bloody miscellany in special containers.
But in the birth plan that Hughes brought with her to Beth Israel Medical Center, she specified that she wanted to keep her placenta, for cultural reasons. Complying with New York State health regulations, which says that hospitals “may, at the request of a patient or patient’s representative, return a healthy placenta for disposition by the patient,” the hospital allowed her to take it home, and even packed it up for her.
In some cultures, it is customary to bury the placenta and plant a tree over it.
Hughes had other plans. She was going to eat it.
Early the next morning, a 28-year-old woman named Jennifer Mayer is driving a Subaru from Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge with an opaque takeout container in the passenger seat. Inside the container is a gallon-size Ziploc bag, and inside the bag is Jennifer Hughes’s placenta.
Mayer—an upbeat, blue-eyed blonde from upstate New York—is a professional placenta-preparer. Her job is to transform placentas into supplements that are said to alleviate postpartum depression, aid in breastmilk production and lactation, act as a uterine tonic, and replenish nutrients lost during pregnancy. Her clients are mostly middle-class, like Hughes and her husband, Doug, who are college-educated, in their thirties, and live on a gentrifying street in Crown Heights. On this dreary April morning, Mayer is driving the afterbirth to their apartment to begin preparing it.
“It’s the freshest placenta I’ve ever worked with!” she says, glancing over at the container as the car lurches through traffic. Mayer speaks about the organ in tones most women reserve for newborns: “perfect,” “beautiful,” “precious.”
Her enthusiasm isn’t unfounded. The placenta feeds the baby until birth, filtering toxins while letting in vitamins, minerals, oxygen, and other nutrients from the mother’s bloodstream. It even helps reduce the risk of transmitting viruses, including HIV, from mother to child.
Mayer, who also works as a massage therapist and doula, first became interested in placentas as a student at the University of Colorado. After reading up on the purported benefits of consuming one’s afterbirth and learning that a client was planning to try it, Mayer decided that she wanted to offer her customers placenta capsules: dried, ground afterbirth packaged into a clear pill no bigger than a regular vitamin supplement.
The technique, called encapsulation, was not widely practiced in Colorado and, until quite recently, was practically unknown on the East Coast. But Mayer found a doula who conducted training sessions with donated placentas, and started her business, Brooklyn Placenta Services, shortly thereafter.
“They’re happy pills,” Mayer says. “They’re made by your body, for your body. Why wouldn’t you want to try?”
In 1930, the researchers Otto Tinklepaugh and Carl Hartman described a female macaque monkey eating her placenta. “After licking the afterbirth, she begins the grueling task … of consuming this tough fibrous mass,” they wrote. “Holding the organ in her hands, she bites and tears at it with her teeth.” Tinklepaugh and Hartman could not determine the precise reason why macaques—and virtually every other land mammal—eat their own placenta. To this day, the reasons remain unclear.
Mark Kristal, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Buffalo, is the country’s leading (and quite possibly only) authority on placentophagia, the practice of placenta consumption. He has been researching the phenomenon for twenty years, and concludes that it must offer “a fundamental biological advantage” to all mammals. What this advantage is, he writes in one of his papers, “is still a mystery … in fact, a double mystery. We are not sure either of the immediate causes … nor are we sure of the consequences of the behavior.” But placentas have carried a special spiritual significance in some cultures. In ancient Egypt, it had its own hieroglyph, and the Ibo tribe in Nigeria and Ghana treats the placenta like a child’s dead twin. In traditional Chinese medicine, small doses of human placenta are sometimes dried, mixed with herbs, and ingested to alleviate, among other things, impotence and lactation conditions. And in modern medicine, doctors often bank umbilical-cord blood to treat genetic diseases with harvested stem cells.
According to Kristal, the first recorded placentophagia movement in America began in the seventies, when people residing in communes would cook up a placenta stew and share it among themselves. “It’s a New Age phenomenon,” he explains. “Every ten or twenty years people say, ‘We should do this because it’s natural and animals do it.’ But it’s not based on science. It’s a fad.”
Most scientists agree that the existing research is tenuous. Placenta is known to contain high levels of iron, vitamin B-12, and certain hormones—a fact activists cite as proof of its nutritional value—but there is no conclusive study linking, for example, the iron in a placenta to increased strength in a new mother. Advocates also say placentophagia helps mothers produce milk, and reference a 1954 study that claimed 86 percent of mothers experiencing lactation problems showed improved milk supply after eating freeze-dried placenta. But the study has repeatedly been discredited as unrigorous. As for cooked placenta, Kristal says any potential nutritional value would be reduced to that of a “steer liver.”
For Alexa Beckham, a petite brunette who started an encapsulation service called Ruby Tree Birth late last year, the science, or lack thereof, has little impact on the magic she experienced.
“When I was pregnant, I just craved organs,” says Beckham, a onetime vegan and raw-foodist who now eats grass-fed and organic meat. “I’d go to Diner [the Williamsburg restaurant] and order beef hearts, marrow … so the placenta just made sense.
“After I gave birth, I threw a chunk of placenta in the Vitamix with coconut water and a banana,” she adds. “It gave me the wildest rush. You know the feeling of drinking green juice on an empty stomach? It’s like that, but much more intense. It was definitely physical.”
Former model and self-described “baby planner, doula, marriage counselor, and placenta lady” London King explains, “The body follows the mind. If I drink a green drink and I think it’s good for me, then that’s great. The same thing holds for the placenta. Even if it is 100 percent psychological, it has its purpose. I’ve seen people report fewer breast-feeding problems and higher energy, and that’s evidence enough for me.”
At Hughes’s apartment, Mayer unloads her gear: a large stainless-steel knife; stainless-steel tongs; absorbent Chux pads; an apron, gloves; and a dehydrator in a box bearing promises of dried fruit and beef jerky. She begins to clean the kitchen thoroughly with bleach and a sponge. In New York, there aren’t any laws governing encapsulation other than standard food-preparation guidelines, and since Mayer doesn’t have a commercial kitchen, she must prepare a placenta in the bearer’s own home.
“When I was pregnant, I just craved organs … so the placenta just made sense.”
Hughes’s apartment is strewn with prenatal paraphernalia—a contraction log, pregnancy-yoga DVDs, raspberry-leaf tea—so when Mayer takes the placenta out of its container, it doesn’t seem entirely out of place. She lays the organ on a cutting board in the kitchen and examines it carefully.
The size and shape of placentas vary, Mayer says. “Some are really intense, with grief or sadness or uncertainty. This one is pretty joyful. It’s big and round, and so fresh!” Beaming, she handles it tenderly. The placenta wobbles with each touch.
Hughes had requested a placenta head-to-tail, complete with mementos: a print of the organ and the dehydrated remains of the umbilical cord preserved for safekeeping. “We’ll do half-cooked, half-raw, and keep the broth,” Mayer declares, referring to different preparation techniques.
She presses a sheet of watercolor paper onto the placenta and holds it there for a moment to make a print discerning the organ’s unique, veiny outline. “Ugh, too juicy. Let’s try again.” The next one comes out just right—a damp, bloody Rorschach. “See, it’s the tree of life!” she says, pointing to the shrublike outline.
Mayer then picks up the placenta, stands over the sink, and squeezes out the excess blood into a container. She pats it dry and starts peeling away its tough white membrane with her knife. “I try to send positive energy when I’m making medicine,” she goes on, as she continues blotting leaking blood (Mayer uses one roll of paper towels per placenta). “I think of peace, promise, and recovery, and hold the intention of integrating the energy of the mother and the baby.”
She then cuts the placenta in two. She will prepare one half according to the traditional Chinese method: wrapped in its membrane and steamed in a pot with a knob of ginger, a whole lemon, and a jalapeño pepper; then chopped up, dehydrated, and ground into a powder. She plans to dehydrate the other half raw.
The cooked half steams for half an hour, filling the room with the smell of meat and ginger. When Mayer takes it out, it has the texture and color of overcooked brisket. She chops it and lays it out on the parchment-lined dehydrator tray, below the raw version, which she has also chopped into slivers. In total, the placenta takes up four sixteen-inch trays.
When she turns on the dehydrator, another odor, unfamiliar to Mayer, fills the room. “It smells like something died in here!” she says.
Mayer then cleans the kitchen, packs her belongings, and leaves the placenta to dry overnight. She will return the next day for the second part of the process.
In 2005, an acupuncturist told pregnant Jodi Selander that placenta-eating could stave off postpartum depression. Selander then read up about the placenta’s nutritional and hormonal profile in mothering and pregnancy magazines and examined small-scale studies in which women reported better moods, higher energy levels, and less trouble breast-feeding after consuming their placenta in capsule form. When her daughter was born, Selander decided to give it a try. According to her, it worked so well that she made it her mission to spread the word.
She has since built an afterbirth empire. She coined the term placenta encapsulation and standardized the method of transforming afterbirth into pills. In 2006, she began selling encapsulation kits and instructional pamphlets, which ship worldwide, through her website, placentabenefits.info. She also sells I LOVE PLACENTA T-shirts for mothers and babies, and keeps a Twitter account, @placentalady, where she solicits birth stories from her followers.
Selander started encapsulating placentas in her local community—she has completed more than 500 to date—but it was not until the summer of 2007 that her proselytizing came into the spotlight. One of her clients, Anne Swanson, gave birth at Nevada’s Sunrise Hospital and requested to take her placenta home, but the hospital refused to hand it over.
Selander was so incensed that she organized a rally outside the hospital’s main entrance. “They thought I was crazy,” she says. “When I told them why we wanted the placenta, they reported me to the authorities, and the FDA investigated.
“I give talks at a local health-food store,” she adds. “And I was asked to cancel one day when men in suits turned up there and prowled the aisles—they thought I was harvesting and selling them!”
Until 2006, there were no laws regulating a patient’s access to her placenta. The state of Hawaii was the first to explicitly require that hospitals allow women to take placentas home, and New York and Nevada have since enacted their own guidelines. Still, many states have no regulations, and hospitals continue to remain squeamish. Citing “hospital policy,” two New York hospitals refused to return placentas to Mayer’s last two clients.
“Sometimes you just have to smuggle it,” Mayer jokes.
“It’s a good idea to bring your own food-safe container,” advises Alexa Beckham.
For Swanson, it was too late for negotiations: Her placenta was in a vat with countless others. The hospital demanded a court order for its release, and Selander and Swanson obtained one. Three months after Swanson gave birth, Sunrise gave up a placenta from their supply.
“It was the saddest little placenta I’d ever seen in my life,” Selander recalls. “It was half-decomposed.”
Selander and Swanson buried it as a tribute.
Over the next year, four additional clients were refused their placentas, and Selander picketed Sunrise on behalf of another customer who wanted to fight the hospital’s policy. She posted notices on the Internet warning women not to give birth at Sunrise, issued press releases about her rally, wrote articles for parenting journals, and appeared on local TV extolling the benefits of placenta consumption. It became a women’s-rights issue: my placenta, my choice.
Her hard work paid off. Sunrise changed its policy, and hundreds of miles away from Las Vegas, the victory sealed her reputation as the high priestess of the modern placentophagia movement. Lisa Fortin, another placenta provider (whose sister took Selander’s course), attributes the attention the practice has received—even from skeptics—to Selander.
Ayshah Kassamali-Fox, a mother of two who lives on Long Island, ate pieces of her placenta in smoothie form for a week after she gave birth. Stana Weisburd of Park Slope had her husband cut up and dehydrate hers. She ate some, and keeps the leftovers in her pantry. Time columnist Joel Stein wrote about his wife popping placenta pills. London King says there has been an uptick in requests in the past ten months, and in Greenpoint, Beckham and her friend Adriane Stare plan to host an information session in Stare’s high-end babywear shop. “Anyone with any great placenta recipes?” posted one mother on urbanbaby.com last August. “I love spices, so nothing too bland.”
A few years ago, a group of mothers organized a placenta picnic in Prospect Park where they compared placenta-eating experiences, and considered performing a mass burial of leftover parts they had kept. Loretta Jordan, a Bronx-based doula who organized the picnic, would go on to drink a piece of her daughter’s placenta in a “top-shelf Bloody Mary.”
Back in Hughes’s kitchen, Mayer takes the placenta she dehydrated the day before and grinds it up in a Magic Bullet blender. Wearing a surgical mask, she says, joking, “I don’t want to breathe in placenta.” She then pours the nutmeg-colored powder into a pill-making kit and seals the capsules, several dozen at a time. The entire batch will take her just over an hour and produce about 150 pills.
Hughes and her husband, Doug, have come home with their newborn son after spending the night in the hospital. They sit on their couch, depleted, while the baby sleeps.
“I’m so glad we got it,” Doug says. “I was prepared to wrestle it from the nurse’s hands.”
“But I’m not eating it!” he quickly adds. “I’m just a passenger.”
Hughes describes her husband as an “adventurous eater,” but when they heard that a friend served his wife’s placenta jerky at a party, Doug said he thought it was “a bit much.”
“Are you sure?” asks Mayer. “I can save you a piece.”
“Maybe. Save some.”
Mayer takes a bit of dehydrated, cooked placenta she saved and ceremoniously places a portion in their open palms. The pieces are brown, shriveled, and brittle—like old shoe leather left out in the sun.
The new parents toast each other, giggle nervously, and begin to chew. The crunch is audible across the room, and they wince slightly at the sound.
“So, what do you think?” Mayer asks.
“It tastes like jerky,” Doug says. “Dry, gamy, bland jerky.”
Step 1: Drain blood and blot dry. Step 2: Cook for half-hour. Photo: Kathryn Parker Almanas