Mother-to-be locked in battle with Hong Kong hospital over right to keep placenta

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 August, 2014, 6:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 August, 2014, 9:58am

A heavily pregnant American woman living in Hong Kong is entangled in a bureaucratic battle with a public hospital over the fate of her placenta.

Melissa Grenham, who is 39 weeks pregnant with her second child, expects to give birth at Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam in the next few days.

She wants to convert her placenta - the organ that delivers nutrients to the fetus - into capsules for consumption, a practice known as placenta encapsulation. But hospital bosses have said no and insisted it would be incinerated as "medical waste".

While there is little scientific research on placentophagy - ingestion of the afterbirth - the practice is increasingly popular with new mothers, who claim it wards off postnatal depression, boosts milk production and helps recovery after birth.

The placenta has religious significance in some cultures and is used in traditional Chinese medicine. But few Hong Kong doctors and wellness experts would discuss placentophagy.

Grenham told the hospital in June that she wished to keep her placenta. But her request has become a hot potato, pushed from one department to another.

The failure to get an answer has left the 38-year-old frustrated and angry. And time is running out.

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"I could go into labour any minute, so it's critical someone makes a decision," Grenham said.

"What we have here is a grey area in the public hospital system. Private hospitals are allowing and assisting mothers in retaining and removing their placentas, while the public system is complicating matters by refusing to release placentas, with government bodies at odds over who is responsible for the removal and handling of the placenta."

Grenham says the Hospital Authority is the biggest hurdle, having refused her request on the grounds of "safety and health".

Its spokesman said: "The authority has to comply with the law … as well as the relevant government rules and regulations … to ensure public health and public interests are safeguarded."

But Grenham says neither the Health Department, which oversees the Hospital Authority, nor the Environmental Protection Department raised objections.

"I'm going around in circles," said Grenham, who wants to encapsulate her placenta because she suffered severe fatigue after the birth of her first child.

Since last year, Queen Mary - one of eight public hospitals with maternity wards - has received four requests for the release of placentas, including Grenham's. None were granted. It does not have earlier statistics. The authority said it did not collect statistics on placenta requests from other public hospitals.

Unclaimed placentas are classed as medical waste and disposed of at the government's chemical-waste treatment centre at Tsing Yi.

Some private hospitals - including Matilda International Hospital on The Peak, Canossa Hospital in Mid-Levels and Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital in Happy Valley - say they allow mothers to keep placentas.

But "forcing women to go private is economic discrimination", Grenham said. Giving birth privately can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, against a few hundred in public hospitals.

She said refusing her was a violation of her human rights: "It's my body and I should be able to do with it what I want."

Human-rights lawyer Mike Vidler agreed that a woman was entitled to keep her body parts. "Bureaucratic conservatism is at work if the public hospitals in Hong Kong don't allow women to claim their own body parts … If there's no danger to public health, then I don't see an issue."

French woman Jeanne Hauguel opted for Matilda after hearing about problems claiming placentas in the public system. Australian-born Kathy Kitzis had a home birth in the city in 2012 to guarantee she got her placenta, which she turned into pills.

A 40-year-old New Zealand woman, who wants to remain anonymous, says that in 2012 she received approval from Queen Mary Hospital and the New Zealand government to take the placenta of her first child back to her mother's hometown to be buried. Maoris bury the placenta as a symbol of honouring the relationship between humans and the earth.

However, she claims the hospital then disposed of her placenta without explanation. "I wish I had fought harder, but I was exhausted at the time," she said.

Hong Kong-based firms A Mother's Touch and Birth Story provide placenta advice and workshops, with costs ranging from HK$400 to HK$3,500.

Liz Purnell-Webb, director of A Mother's Touch, says a simple solution would be a registration system so mothers who wanted to claim placentas could sign a disclaimer.

Judy Xu, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine at Oriental Health in Sheung Wan, said placenta was a nurturing medicine. "It can nurture the blood, it can enhance your qi, and it's been used for anti-ageing and boosting energy levels."

For legal reasons, Xu said her clinic only used sheep placenta in treatments. "The human one, from a medical perspective, is good," she said. "However, there are a lot of other issues, like moral issues, in taking another person's placenta."

Placenta encapsulation is also growing in popularity among celebrities. In 2012, Mad Men star January Jones said she had turned her placenta into pills, while reality-television star Kim Kardashian plans to do the same.

In June, the European Food Safety Authority classified human-placenta products as "a novel food", regulating the sale of them.

The sale of human placenta remains illegal in Hong Kong. However, an investigation by the Post found placenta available under the counter in several traditional Chinese medicine shops.