Centa. Pla Centa.

Darling CF,

Your thoughts on placenta-eating alerted me to an interesting category problem: are placentas things that feed us—in which case it might make sense to continue the tradition—or are they the containers (or rather, conduits) through which nourishment is delivered, in which case the problem is more a case of nesting baskets? One more empty husk, as you put it? Pregnancy scrambles categories like mutualism, parasitism, life, in much the way that viruses do—“is it alive” is the philosophical crux for both kids in utero and viruses.

Life in biology textbooks is usually defined according to whether the thing reproduces, metabolizes, responds to stimuli, grows, adapts, and self-regulates. Viruses occupy a strange liminal space. Some consider them to be alive; others call them “replicators,” things that merely (merely!) reproduce.

Viruses, as you know, consist of DNA enclosed in a protein shell. That’s it. They don’t have organelles. They don’t eat. They don’t respirate. A virion’s modus operandi consists of using its protein shell to inject its DNA into the host cell, leaving the protein capsid behind (an empty husk). The viral DNA takes over the host cell’s DNA-reproducing equipment in the nucleolus and hijacks it into producing its own DNA instead. DNA codes for protein: the new DNA gets enclosed in a new protein capsid, the cell fills with virus, eventually bursts, and the new viruses go in search of new hosts. Rinse and repeat.

Can such a ruthlessly efficient thing—designed merely for the injection and reproduction of DNA—be “alive”? It seemed like an interesting counterexample to your labeling of the placenta as a temporary organ, which had never occurred to me but which I quite like. A virus has nothing to do with consumption or elimination, nothing at all to do, in other words, with feeding. The virion has perfected a mode of reproduction that eliminates the need for organs entirely. On the other end of the reproductive spectrum is the “cake” (ha!).  Different in kind from the vestigial appendix, the stone-ridden gallbladder and inflamed tonsils, the placenta grows and feeds and adapts and is expelled. It’s all organ, only organ, the exact opposite of a system that renders organs (and bodies, for that matter) superfluous.

So should mothers eat this morally correct meat? I guess my first question is a touch proprietary: I want to understand to whom, technically speaking, it belongs. Its fitness as a purveyor of nutrients seems to depend on whose needs it’s actually serving: mother’s or child’s. In other words, if it is a temporary organ (and I accept that it is), to whom does it belong?

Let’s consider the fetus’ status as an efficient parasite. Fetal and maternal blood don’t ever actually mix across the placental barrier. Instead, the baby’s placenta grows into the maternal uterine lining where the (closed off) capillaries filled with fetal blood are bathed in maternal blood in the intervillar spaces. An exchange of nutrients and gases takes place osmotically across that importantly walled-off border. In this sense, then, the placenta is essentially fetal, and in this account, it makes sense for the child to be grouped with it (whether for burial or breakfast).

It’s the feeding that seems important here. Again the honors seem to rest with the fetus, which saves itself from the streamlined viral model of reproduction by consuming and respirating, all via the placenta. It’s that temporary organ, in other words, that permits a less efficient but more complex interaction with the environment. The placenta is actually a product of the zygote, which results from the union of sperm and egg; it isn’t, in other words, built from maternal DNA (unlike, say, mitochondria, which produce all a cell’s ATP, and which are absolutely matrilineal).

I bet you can see where I’m going: if the placenta is specialized for fetal nourishment, why would the organ necessarily benefit the mother? You mention the mother’s many possible reasons for eating the placenta, including the sheer ballsiness of transgressing such a strict taboo (fascinated, by the way, to learn that cannibalism is relegated to the consumption of muscle!), but maybe it’s not so much “I eat my own organs, motherfucker!” as “I eat my baby’s organs, mo-fo!” which somehow puts the taboo on a whole other level.

You see the problem I’m running into—the same category problem that arises whenever abortion gets discussed: can the placenta belong to the fetus and not to the mother? One of the placenta’s functions is to impede the mother’s immune system from recognizing the fetus as a foreign body and attacking it. The mothercake is no such thing! It’s a double-agent—the baby’s advocate and intermediary, the arbiter for contests between maternal and fetal (and paternal, for that matter) biology.

I say, burn after reading.

Fondly,

Millicent

PS–I don’t know how I ended up on such a paranoid note. It probably has to do with the fact that I’m harboring my own little adenovirus at the moment. I am awash in emptied-out plasmid husks!

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