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Placentophagy, Human Milk, and the Yuck-Factor

10 Mar, 11 | by Iain Brassington

There’s an interesting post over at Science-Based Medicine about the practice of placentophagy: that is, placenta-eating.  The piece points out that, while some eat it raw, it can also be cooked; eating it raw provokes the yuck factor.  Speaking personally, I’m not sure that it’s rawness makes all that much difference here – but maybe I’m just an unadventurous diner.  Others are more daring: think, for example of the Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall documentary from 1998 that covered a couple having a “placenta pâte party” to celebrate their child’s birth.  (The programme is still available to watch here; I love the way that the guidance warning says, “Includes cooking & eating of placenta”, given that the cooking and eating of placenta is the whole raison d’être of the broadcast.)

The other big objection is that it’s somehow cannibalistic; and, if eating people is wrong, then we ought not to eat the placenta.  But, of course, there’s a couple of qualifications here: it’s assumed that eating people is categorically wrong (rather than simply wrong in most situations), and that eating people is the same as eating human tissue, which it ain’t.

Basically, what we seem to be left with is the yuck factor… and appeals to yuck don’t have all that good a reputation.

There seems to be some kind of parallel here with the recent media huffing about Baby Gaga, the ice-cream made from human milk that was recently put on sale in London – and almost as quickly removed from sale.  (Anders Sandberg considers the matter here.)  The official reason offered was that there were public health concerns – but donors had apparently been screened, and the milk had been pasteurised (and, anyway, you can buy unpasteurised milk and milk products from other animals…).  My hunch is that the health concerns were a smokescreen for responding to an appeal to the yuck-factor – otherwise why were complaints from the public deemed relevant?

All of which raises questions about why public complaints make all that much difference.  (Incidentally: Channel 4 was criticised by the BSC for the TV Dinners episode, on the grounds that it breached a taboo and “would have been disagreeable to many” – though only nine people actually complained.)  Let’s admit that consuming human products violates certain taboos, and makes some people feel uncomfortable.  So what?  As long as there’s no coercion, there’s not obviously a problem.  You might want to argue that gratuitously causing offence or setting out to cause it is blameable – but there’s no evidence that this is what was going on here; and there’re obviously other people who were not offended.  This means that the onus is on the complainants to show (a) that there is a fact of the matter about offensiveness, (b) those not offended have made a mistake, and (c) the gravity of the offence is sufficient to warrant an intrusion onto the liberty of those not offended.  Quite a tough call.

Is this an endorsement of placenta-eating or human-milk consumption?  Not at all.  I could take or leave either, and I’d much more happily leave than take.  I share slightly yuck-based feelings about both; but that’s a long way from saying that either is morally problematic in its own right.

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