Earlier today, I wrote about Mad Men star January Jones revealing to People magazine that she has joined the trend of eating ones own placenta in pill form after the birth of her son. Chris Field then posed the question: How is this not cannibalism?
Field cites the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of “placenta” as an “organ…that unites the fetus to the maternal uterus…” This organ is a temporary one, developing during pregnancy. When a mammal gives birth the placenta is usually shed after delivery, and, as I noted in the original post, some mammals often partake in eating their own placenta. But is this really cannibalism?
To follow Chris’s example, let’s start with the definition of “cannibalism” according to Merriam-Webster:
1: the usually ritualistic eating of human flesh by a human being2: the eating of the flesh of an animal by another animal of the same kind
When picturing an act of cannibalism, many probably call to mind a Hannibal Lecter-like image where a person is gnawing on another persons bone or muscle, but Merriam-Webster doesn’t specify exactly what constitutes “human flesh.” This leaves us to assume that eating any part of the human body would be considered cannibalism.
Since Chris refutes the comparison with booger eating, as boogers are the result of a secretion, let’s limit human flesh to constitute organs and components of organ systems. There are eight organ systems in the human body: skeletal, muscular, circulatory, nervous, respiratory, excretory, reproductive, and integumentary. It is this last organ system that I’ll focus on for our purposes.
The integumentary system includes skin and all appendages related to skin, such as hair and nails. Hmm, nails. So, are people who bite their nails cannibals? And what about cuticle biters? That’s like eating skin. This is a good comparison for the placenta-cannibal argument as moms like Jones are eating their own placenta, not that of others. So, both these situations could be considered self-cannibalism.
Although, it could be argued the placenta pills are only half self-cannibalism because the mother would never have had the placenta if it weren’t for the child. Therefore, the placenta could be considered half the child’s organ.
With all this in mind, I think Chris’s question still stands, but now has even more food — gross — for thought. Who’s ready for lunch?