The Human Organ in my Freezer

There’s a placenta in my freezer. I found it on Friday morning when I was rummaging around in the basement freezer. The gleaming white umbilical cord stretched across the inside of the clear ziploc bag quickly revealed that it was not a flank steak after all, but my own placenta from L.’s birth fifteen months ago. I felt slightly queasy as I looked at it — not because there was a human placenta in my hands (safely wrapped in plastic, of course), but more because I was horrified that I’d forgotten to bury my beloved son’s placenta last summer. How does a person forget about something like that? The problem is, it’s February in Canada and the ground is frozen hard as iron with a thick blanket of snow on top. I won’t be able to bury the placenta until May at the earliest, so I wrapped it up again and carefully stowed it in the bottom of the freezer for another few months.

OK, so I'm not the only person who does this! (photo: lincoln-log/CC)
OK, so I’m not the only person who does this! (photo: lincoln-log/CC)

Baby L. was born during a November snowstorm in our living room, assisted by three lovely midwives. After he was delivered, they spread out the placenta in a basin for examination. They were very impressed by the perfect knot that he’d tied by flipping around in utero and even took some pictures of it because it’s so rare. Then they asked what I wanted to do with the placenta. (It’s illegal to throw it out with the garbage.) I liked the idea of burying it in the garden and planting a tree on top to honour our new family member, so my husband whisked away the basin, presumably to put it in the freezer till the ground thawed. I turned back to my newborn and never thought about it again.

There’s a definite gross factor when I think of what’s residing downstairs but, at the same time, I kind of like it. Having that placenta around reflects my philosophy toward childbirth — that it’s a beautiful, sacred, natural process that should be celebrated and enjoyed, rather than the overly medicalized, fear-centric procedure in which women are treated as sick patients and doctors make decisions in order to keep on a schedule. Why shouldn’t a mother have access to her own placenta following a birth? Why treat it as bio-hazardous waste and be so quick to remove it from the presence of the mother?

After all, the placenta is nothing short of a miracle — an organ grown throughout the pregnancy that nourishes the baby. Many cultures view the placenta with great reverence. In Costa Rica and Cambodia, burying the placenta is thought to protect the health of baby and mother. Some native cultures consider the placenta a friend or relative of the baby. The Ibo of Nigeria believe it to be a dead twin and provide full burial rites. Dried placenta is used in Chinese medicine as a healthy restorative. Apparently deer (and I’m guessing other mammals, too) eat their fresh placentas to regain much-needed nutrients.

When this subject came up at a baby shower yesterday, I learned that there’s a new doula in town who offers a special service drying and encapsulating the placenta as pills to take during the post-partum period. As fascinating as that sounds, I’m definitely not at the point of wanting to eat my own placenta. It will remain solidly frozen for now and, come springtime, will provide its nutrients to a new little tree whose roots are the source of one of my greatest oversights.

Just curious — what did some of you female readers do with your placentas, if anything at all?

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12 thoughts on “The Human Organ in my Freezer

  1. Your most bizarre and hilarious post! You have a placenta in your freezer!
    I’d love to say I dried them and ate them but I haven’t given them a second thought until now. I guess they went in the bio bin. 😉

  2. I once went into a friend’s freezer and discovered a dead cat there, also because the ground was too frozen to bury it in the backyard. I must say, armed with this knowledge, I will never go searching through freezers again, perhaps not even my own.

  3. My sister ate hers. A doula made some into smoothies and some into capsules. I’m not judging anyone if that’s what they want to do but it just grossed me out, especially the placenta smoothie. :S I don’t have children (I am an undergraduate student) but when I do, there’s no way I am doing that!

  4. I’m guessing both mine were chucked. I had both kids at a birthing centre, same room even. First time with midwives, second with a wonderful doctor- both drug free. My first time around was such a traumatic experience (had 2 close calls, one where I actually lost consciousness and stopped breathing). I was told later that the placenta was starting to die and if she had been in there any longer she would have been in serious trouble). With the second, I was just so happy to have an awesome birthing experience, I didn’t care what happen to the placenta. Thinking back, I would have kept it and buried it.

  5. I had my placenta encapsulated and it was the best choice ever. 🙂 Really helped with the scary weeks following the birth when my emotions were such a roller coaster. When I forgot to take the placenta pills for that day, I could REALLY tell a difference. It may very well have kept me from experiencing serious post-partum depression, and that’s so awesome that I’ve stopped caring whether people find it gross or not!

    1. That’s really cool that it helped with post-partum emotions. It sure is a roller coaster ride, so why not use a natural method to deal with it? It’s not that I think it’s gross. It’s just unusual and I think if I had enough time to become accustomed to the idea, I could potentially do it if I had another baby. We’ll see!

  6. I’m pretty sure that most hospitals have incinerators to dispose of bio-hazardous waste like human tissue, including placentas, so that’s where mine ended up. We got to look at our placenta and had its functionality and components described to us. It was a very interesting piece of bio-hazardous waste. They asked if we wanted to keep it, and we politely decline. All women, regardless of birth location or method, have access to their placentas, if they are so inclined. (I confirmed this with my friend in the health care profession.)

    I delivered both of my children in the birthing center at our local hospital, attended by midwives. I was in a cozy hospital room with a private bathroom and Jacuzzi tub (much nicer than my own bathroom at home!) and surrounded by shiny medical equipment (no doubt similar to the equipment that the midwives take to all home births), some of which was there to receive the baby, and some that was there on stand-by in case the worst should happen. During the labour and deliver of my first child, the attending midwife was mildly concerned with the baby’s progress and took steps to keep things on schedule. I trusted her judgment as a medical professional in the same way I would have trusted a physician. There was even one point during the whole ordeal (I use the word ‘ordeal’ because while childbirth may be natural, that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful or traumatic for a lot of women) when a physician had to be called in to assist with something that was outside of the midwife’s scope of practice (I think that’s the correct lingo to use). It was a very cooperative and positive situation, and a great testament to the advanced health care system that we are privileged with in Ontario. It isn’t the medical system that treats childbirth as a “fear-centric procedure,” it is modern medicine that has given us reason to not fear childbirth. Wikipedia tells us (and isn’t Wikipedia always right?) that “The death rate for women giving birth plummeted in the 20th century” and that “The historical level of maternal deaths is probably around 1 in 100 births.” Now that would be a reason to fear childbirth. Let’s not vilify the very medical system that has worked so hard to keep mothers alive and to expertly care for babies during the most dangerous day in their 18 years of childhood. Modern medicine – well done!

    1. I see the point that you’re trying to get across, but it sounds like you put blind faith in the medical system and in doctors. The fact is, I’m seeing more and more how doctors are out to lunch on many, many issues and are unwilling to look at any empirical evidence which contradicts anything in official medical texts, journals, etc. There are limits to modern medicine. Moreover, one of the main faults of modern medicine is its belief that it has ultimate authority over declaring what is safe / unsafe, healthy vs. unhealthy, proven vs. unproven. As an example that’s near and dear to me, there’s an analogy in Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, where he states, correctly, that modern science and nutritionists attempt to isolate and categorize the one magic ingredient in a food that seems to benefit people the most. This then becomes the next “magic pill” that’s the key to human health. Doctors and the food industry are responsible for vilifying fat, telling us that dietary fat leads to cholesterol clogging the arteries. Along came Dr. Barry Sears who claimed that fat isn’t the enemy – that it’s the processed foods and “low-fat this, low-fat that” products that are wreaking havoc on people’s health and causing obesity and heart disease, and what did the medical community do? They labeled him a quack. But the empirical evidence that he was right is growing, and only now are doctors coming out of the woodwork admitting to being wrong. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that medical schools encourage “thinking outside the box” – they are trade schools, much like law schools, that teach their students how to think exactly like every other doctor before them, and to parrot back the information accepted as gospel in medical texts. Back to my point: in the case of nutrition and its effect on human health, what’s happening is that science / medicine are barking up the wrong tree from the very outset – it is the food as a whole that has effects that are not, and possibly cannot be understood due to the synergistic effect the constituent ingredients have when ingested together. Science tends to overcomplicate what is simple and oversimplify what is complex in such cases. Granted, science and medicine have done much for the well-being of humankind – but they have also done incredible harm. Ever hear of thalidomide? Electric shock therapy? Frontal lobotomies? The same can be said of the medical community’s attitude towards childbirth. It sees it as an unnatural state that must be minimized and managed according to the accepted norms. It does not question the basis upon which the norms were established. If you doubt me, look up the topic of the addition of fluoride to drinking water. It’s an incredibly interesting issue.
      Katherine’s post is not at all about vilifying the medical system – it’s about bringing attention to the fact that it doesn’t have all the answers, especially when you consider that the system was predominantly male throughout much of history, and men imposed on women their beliefs about how childbirth should be handled. And so I ask: How could a male doctor possibly know about what feels comfortable to a woman in labour? I’d draw attention to the fact that a doctor needs only be in attendance at three births (see one, do one, teach one) in order to be qualified to deliver babies. Midwives? Sixty. At a minimum. Now who’s better qualified and, being a woman, better in tune with what feels comfortable for another woman? I respect and value the advances that modern medicine has made in the service of the preservation of life, but I do take almost everything I hear from a doctor with a grain of salt until I do my own research and see if it makes sense to me.

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