The Case of the Disembodied Placenta

Now, there's some cool Kelly clamp usage.

Let us bow down before the sacred placenta.


Sorry. I don’t mean to beat the thing to death, but the media reaction to the reinstatement of Doyle Byrnes and her colleagues strikes me as, well, odd. Their consensus: the school may have been a bully, but they photographed a placenta — why, that’s a very sensitive organ! People feel very strongly about their placentas! Robyn Urback at Maclean’s, for example (for my U.S. readers, Maclean’s is a Canadian news magazine):

And they weren’t doing anything exceptionally inappropriate with the organ, just posing and snapping photos (which is curious enough, to say the least). But the situation is complicated for a number of reasons. Firstly, the placenta is an organ involved with reproduction and birth, which makes it a little more personal, sensitive, than a lung, for example. It’s the difference between posing with a heart and posing with a pair of severed testicles; one snapshot will elicit a little more reaction. Secondly, the students are studying to be nurses, a job that demands professionalism and empathy, especially when working with patients whose illnesses have robbed them of dignity. Nonchalance in the presence of blood, scars, feces, vomit, etc. (except when medically necessary) is the mark of appropriate bedside manner. Few patients would feel secure watching their nurse gawk at their oddly coloured growth.

Hmmm. Not sure exactly how photographing a placenta makes nursing students any less professional and empathetic, but let’s give that one a pass. Let’s recap for a moment, though:

The nursing student was appropriately gloved and clearly in a healthcare setting.

The placenta was not obviously attached to either mother or child, and was sitting in an examination tray (as opposed to resting next to pitcher of sangria with a little yellow umbrella poking from the cord.)

The previous user(s)/owner(s) of the placenta were in no way identified.

Anyone who has watched reality television has seen far worse and in a much more exploitative context, than say, nursing students getting excited about getting up close and personal with a placenta in the pursuit of knowledge.

In short, it’s hard to see from where I sit how the students were disrespecting the placenta, if in fact it’s possible to do such a thing. Let’s put it another way: hospitals don’t make any exceptional provision for protection of placental integrity and dignity. There are no special rules for the disposal of placentas. Evidently, the hospital which provided the placenta to the students had no concerns either. Then there’s this: when I was a nursing student there was a designated placenta freezer. The hospital sold them to cosmetic companies. (I’d be curious if that practice still goes on.) Bottom line: it’s a piece of tissue, people. 99 people out of 100 would not recognize one if they fell over it on the street. Having fulfilled its function, a placenta has no spiritual or mystical value, if it ever did so in the first place. It has no feelings to be hurt. That’s all. Or am I completely out to lunch on this?

[Update: corrected some minor spelling/grammatical issues, and changed a couple of words for clarity. Because tonight I can’t proofread worth a damn.]


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  1. #1 by Barry on Sunday 09 January 2011 - 1857

    Whatever you do, don’t tell ANYONE about a friends who not only had a home birth, but BURIED the placenta in the backyard and planted a tree on top of it! Much less the ones who cooked the placenta up and ate it!

    • #2 by torontoemerg on Monday 10 January 2011 - 0803

      I actually think that’s pretty cool — it’s a custom somewhere, I think, so the child can grow up with the tree.

      I have heard tales of placentaphagy. Fried with onions mostly.

  2. #3 by DOEcomic on Sunday 09 January 2011 - 2101

    I think I’ve had the placenta drink at my local watering hole… sans the yellow umbrella though…

  3. #4 by paedsnurse on Sunday 09 January 2011 - 2207

    Not out of line at all. When I first read that article, I thought it was ridiculous that they would be expelled from their nursing program. A firm reprimand, maybe, but definitely not expulsion.

  4. #5 by undergrad RN on Sunday 09 January 2011 - 2217

    Note to self – do not pose with Placenta, no matter how excited you are to see it in person after reading about it for 3 years.

    Yet another wonderful example of weird ethical pedestals that nurses are expected to uphold. I wonder if the same uproar would be made for med students.

    Seriously – we are excited about our profession and all the stuff that comes with it. People should WANT that. It makes better nurses. The ex owner of this placenta probably would have been pleased that her afterbirth inspired students so much that they took pictures of it. Once I took a picture of hemovac drainage because I thought it was cool. Now I’ll probably get expelled and a cover shot on MacLean’s.

  5. #6 by Maha on Monday 10 January 2011 - 0110

    I’ve been following this story for a little while and I’m flabbergasted at the rage directed against the nursing students. See comments on this issue. I don’t see how its any different from taking a picture of any other tissue. Not like it had a face on it screaming its name and address! Yet another example of crap rules and robotic obedience that nurses are expected to uphold.

    Go figure that one of my resident buddies has a picture of a gruesome x-ray on his profile. He hasn’t gotten into any trouble for that and it’s been up for at least 2 years.

    • #7 by torontoemerg on Monday 10 January 2011 - 0746

      Without a doubt, nurses are held to an ethical double standard vis-a-vis physicians. And “ethics” are used a an excuse to bully nurses.

  6. #8 by Raelene on Friday 05 August 2011 - 2359

    i suppose people were just being sarcastic, like, how do nurses that are so run off their feet that only a pay rise will help them, get the time to do this random posing and photographing.
    Or, maybe those sarcastic people are thinking that, instead of spending their time doing the photographing they might be better off answering call bells/alarms or rechecking histology specimens etc.
    Who knows.

  7. #9 by on Tuesday 26 August 2014 - 1746

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