The Scandal of the Disposed Placenta - Cord Blood Awareness Month

Have you ever wondered what happens to your baby's placenta once you've given birth?

Whilst in hospital giving birth to my twins I asked if I could take my placenta home - I'm not sure if this is a common request but the gas and air seemed to make taking the placenta home very appealing.  I was told by the midwife firmly "no".
Placental and umbilical cord blood is rich in stem cells
Stem Cell

Now, the point is placentas are incredibly valuable.  Did you know that the placenta contains lifesaving tissues?  The amniotic membrane is precious as it can be used to save sight.  Placental stem cells could be used in regenerative medicine, at some point they may be able to be used to build a heart or a liver or a kidney or any other organ a patient may require - an organ that is a 100% match.  Imagine the impact that could have on the organ donation register!

Once the babies were at home I began thinking about what happened to the placenta. What does the hospital do with it?  Does it get buried, burned or even sent to landfill?  I did wonder if the placenta was treated differently in other countries as it seems to be treated with blatant disregard once the baby is born here in the UK.  What happens in countries where hospital births and medical assistance or supervision isn't routine?

Encapsulated Placenta.  Image source: here

In many cultures the placenta is cherished, buried with ceremonial rights to say thank you to Mother Nature for nurturing the infant and blessing the family with a new arrival.  Of course this varies from culture to culture (there's a very interesting article here if you'd like to know more about that).  Some people even take the placenta home to encapsulate it or cook it.  Many people believe that by digesting the placenta the mother's iron levels are restored and that it can even keep post-natal depression at bay.  Consumption, encapsulation or burying the placenta isn’t for everyone so what if you just want to leave it at the hospital?

I imagine most people actually want to leave their placenta at the hospital.  But what does the hospital do with it?  In 1994, Britain banned the practise of collecting placentas in

Placenta facial cream.  Image source: here

hospitals from unsuspecting mothers, after it emerged that 360 tons of it were annually being bought and shipped by French pharmaceutical firms. They used it to make a protein called albumin to treat burns and to make enzymes to treat rare genetic disorders.  Thankfully those days are no more but what else does the hospital do with it?  Well, they use it to train medical professionals, use it for study and possibly experiments.  Then there's the disposal of the placenta, most are discarded without a second thought.  Incineration is the method chosen to dispose of discarded human tissue.  So this valuable organ which is disposed of is unforgivably burned, never to be utilised and deliver the plethora of medical wonders that is bestowed upon it.

I don’t have a problem with the hospital incinerating my placenta, after all they have to dispose of it somehow, nor do I have a problem with them using it for experimentation or staff training.  The issue I have here is informed consent or lack of it to be exact.  Thankfully I have no need to take issue with my placenta being sold to big pharma without my consent now that the practise is banned, but I do object to the hospital denying me the opportunity to take my placenta home.

The issue isn't so much taking the placenta home but to be more precise, what authority does the hospital have to tell me that?  In fact, do they have the authority to tell me that?  Who exactly does the placenta belong to?  OK, lots of questions I know but if I get to take the baby home, why can't I take the placenta home if I want to?  My body, my baby, my placenta, right?  If the placenta isn’t mine then it must belong to the baby.  Does this issue only exist with hospital births?  What about home births?  Does the midwife take the placenta with her?  The thing is, I don't have all the answers to these questions but it doesn't make them invalid.

The potential of the placenta and the blood within it is phenomenal.  It's the gift of life that keeps on giving.  As always awareness is the key to unlocking the problem that is the scandal of the disposed placenta.  Women need to be aware of what their placenta could be used for and the lives it could save.   With this knowledge the pressure on governments and the medical community would surely increase to allow women to have informed consent when deciding the future of their placenta.

I feel disappointed that the system in the UK incinerates the placenta without a second thought.  Informed consent has to be the way forward.  Women should have a choice in the destiny of their placenta.  Whatever happens to that precious organ and the cord blood, whatever the mother chooses, they are potentially lifesaving or life changing and they deserve to be treated with the respect that informed consent gives them.

Until next time...