PORTLAND, Ore. — New mothers will now be able to leave Oregon hospitals with two bundles of joy — one in a car seat, the other in a cooler.
The first, of course, is the baby. The second, thanks to one of the more curious laws that went into effect with the new year, is the placenta.
Many cultures have long revered the meaty organ, whose chief duty is to provide nourishment and oxygen to the fetus. Traditional Cambodian healers call the placenta “the globe of the origin of the soul” and believe it must be buried properly to protect the newborn.
Today, an increasing number of women across the country call the placenta lunch, or at least an important nutritional supplement. These new mothers, including “Mad Men” actress January Jones, believe that eating the tissue in pill form, raw or perhaps in a smoothie can help ease postpartum depression.
The problem with what is officially known as “human maternal placentophagy” — beyond the fact that there are no studies proving its medical value — is that guidelines for dealing with the placenta differ from state to state and even from hospital to hospital.
One person’s sacred object is another’s medical waste.
Which is where Oregon state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer comes in.
The Portland Democrat, who has a master’s degree in public health, said she was first approached about the placenta’s possibilities and problems by Dr. Melvin A. Kohn, who was Oregon’s public health director at the time.
Kohn is married to a midwife, who told him that “there were a lot of women who wanted to take their placentas home from the hospital,” for consumption, burial or other ritual purposes, Keny-Guyer said. “But there was no kind of uniformity about it. There’s a lot of Caucasians who believe they should have the ability to take home the placenta. There are also strong Asian and Native American traditions.”
But as Kohn and Keny-Guyer worked to make their state’s official placenta practices more culturally sensitive, she said, they stumbled upon an even thornier issue: “We found out from the legislative counsel that it is illegal under Oregon state law to allow people to take their placentas.”
So early in 2013, Keny-Guyer introduced HB 2612, which would let new mothers or their representatives take the placenta home from the hospital under most circumstances. The bill passed unanimously in both the state House and Senate, was signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber in May and took effect at midnight Wednesday.
It is unclear whether the placenta-centrism of Oregon — and the greater Portland area in particular — is in sync or at odds with the region’s reputation as a hub of vegan and locavore culture.
One thing, however, is undeniable, said Jodi Selander, founder of an international organization called Placenta Benefits, which tracks and promotes placenta consumption in pill form: “Oregon is very progressive, and I just love that they’re making it a legal right” for a woman to lay claim to her own placenta “as opposed to having it held hostage in the hospital because of the fear of liability.”
Although other states unofficially accept the practice, Selander said, “most states don’t have laws in place regarding the placenta at all.” That is the case in California, said Debby Rogers, deputy director of the state Center for Health Care Quality.
When Raeben Nolan, a Portland-based birth doula, started offering placenta services to her clients six or so years ago, she was pretty much the only game in town. Now, she counts more than 30 “placenta ladies” who offer advice on the use of the placenta.
The law, she figures, will only make her industry more popular, if it has any effect at all.
Tree of Life Placenta Services, the three-woman company Nolan founded, can turn a woman’s placenta into a tasty tortilla soup. Or bake it into a rich lasagna. Or create a ritual for burying the organ. The most common service Tree of Life provides, however, is called placenta encapsulation.
“We steam it really gently over ginger, a very traditional postpartum herb, and lemon,” Nolan said. “There’s a tea left over that tastes surprisingly good. We have the mother drink that tea. It’s very nourishing.”
She then takes the steamed placenta, slices it thinly and places it in a dehydrator on low heat. The result resembles “placenta chips,” she said. “Then you grind it up and put it into little gel caps. They’re easy to fill and easy for moms to take.”
Nolan, who consumed her placenta after the birth of her second child, swears by the organ’s ability to help women heal after childbirth and “deal with motherhood.”
So does Amanda Englund, who has worked with more than 300 Portland-area mothers to make frameable prints and nutritional supplements out of their placentas. After the birth of her son, Lev, Englund consumed half of her placenta in smoothie form and the rest as capsules.
“It’s really uncommon for moms to want to eat it like a steak,” Englund said. “In pill form, it looks like a vitamin.”
Few here believe that simply changing state law will thrust placenta consumption into the mainstream. Because legality isn’t the main problem, they say.
“This is brand-new for Western medicine,” said Heather Rauh, a Portland-based birth doula who plans to have her placenta processed into pills when she gives birth in the spring. “The biggest hurdle is the ick factor.”