The reason I’m taking a curious interest in Kim Kardashian’s plans to eat her placenta, is because I’m actually keen to see how American doctors react to this. And there’s a reason why.
One of my oldest and closest friends is Hmong American. The Hmong are an ethnic minority from SE Asia, and live in an extensive community in mid-western USA, a community which I’ve visited frequently with my friend when I stayed with her parents or relatives. My friend’s mother was a shaman, and she worked with local hospitals translating concepts of health, illness and healing from the Hmong perspective for American doctors with Hmong patients, and vice versa.
When a woman gives birth, the Hmong believe that the placenta should be carefully buried under or near the family house, because it holds and guards the spirit of the child. They believe that if this is not done, then the child will fall very ill and could even die. There are many cultures that have similar beliefs. The Egyptians believed that a child is born with two souls, and one of them was housed in the placenta. So after birth, particularly for royalty, a special tomb would be erected for the burial of the placenta, like for a person. Interestingly where placenta was or still is eaten, as in China, Jamaica, and among smaller tribes as the Araucaninan of Argentina, it is usually ceremonially eaten by close relatives or fed to the child. This is symbolic of the same philosophy – i.e. preserving the spirit of the child within the home or by the family.
The problem for the Hmong living in the U.S. was, that American doctors couldn’t fathom this. They believed that the Hmong were actually eating the placenta (though they actually weren’t)! Placenta-eating is not a medically approved practice the U.S., and so instead of handing over the placenta they’d dispose of it (in an incinerator) with other bio-medical trash. This was very distressing to the Hmong.
Dr. Anne Fadiman, an American doctor who has worked with the Hmong community in the US talks about the tragic consequences that such miscommunications can have when two communities have different ideas of health and healing in her book with the very long title, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. In the book she discusses the case of a little Hmong girl, Lia Lee, who had epilepsy. The parents believed that her spirit had been ripped out of her by the American doctors who had disposed of her placenta after birth instead of giving it to the family to bury near their home. And so they’d often try to prevent her treatment, stop medication etc., and in this tussle between the parents and doctors, Lia got sicker and sicker.
The Hmong patients in fact had the same suspicion of American doctors, which the doctors had of them! Dr. Fadiman says her Hmong patients would ask her, “Why do American doctors take so much blood from their patients? After you die why do American doctors open your head (referring to autopsies)…and [do they] eat the livers, kidneys, and brains [of the dead]?…Are the dead cut into pieces and put in tin cans and sold as food?” So Lia’s parents probably thought that it was the doctors who ate their little’s girl’s placenta and hence her soul!
The concept of health and healing is so integral to how we view our bodies, our self; how we view life in its wholeness, and how we live it. And there are doctors like Fadiman trying to work that into their medical practice and ethics. As she points out, what she recognized was that if a person or community’s custom was contrary to how her medical training viewed it, it is not necessarily bad, unless she knows for sure it is harmful. Eating placenta may not have the western medical community’s full approval, and many perhaps are still not convinced of claims that it has health benefits. But then it has not been proven to be harmful either. What harm would it have done if the doctors had given Lia’s parents her placenta? So what even if they had eaten it? It wouldn’t be harming anybody, but that gesture would have established the first footing of trust between Lia’s family and their doctors and would have helped with Lia’s treatment.
As I searched the internet for a response from doctors to Kim Kardashian’s placenta eating plans, I laughed to find this piece of advice put out by one American doctor who practices from Pittsburg: “Let’s take an in-depth look into the modern practice of placentophagy and the evidence behind it. How can placenta be consumed? Eaten raw, Cooked in a stew or stir fry, or other recipes, Made into a tincture, Dehydrated and put into smoothies, Dehydrated and encapsulated in pill form.”
Placentophagy! Now, that’s the first indication of the medical community formally inducting an otherwise ostracized ‘folk’ practice. Placenta eating has been given a Latin label to give it that very sleek scientific make-over. Well, that’s progress for sure!