Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Between mother and child: On the necessary monstrosity of the placenta

Luce Irigaray writes: “One of the distinctive features of the female body is its toleration of the other’s growth within itself without incurring illness or death for either one of the living organisms.” (Irigaray 1993, Je, tu, nous, p.45)

The illness or death” to which Irrigaray refers, concern the biological hazards of pregnancy. These hazards flow from the fact that the genetic identity between fetus and mother is only fifty percent; for the other half, of course, the fetus is genetically identical to the father. From an immunological point of view, this means that the fetus is half foreign to the mother. As such, there is a real danger of the fetus being rejected by the immune system of the maternal body – rejected as an intruder, a Fremdkörper that must be disposed off in order to restore the integrity of the maternal body. Such an immunological counter reaction is always a real risk during organ transplantations. Hence the attempt to find donors (preferably nearest relatives) who are genetically as close as possible to the receiving patient. But even then there remains the danger of a counter reaction by the body, because – apart from identical twins – not even siblings share all their genes. Hence also the fact that during organ transplantation medicines are used that suppress the immune system. This, however, creates a second danger, since it makes the patient extremely susceptible to infections. Yet in pregnancy we have this intrusion of a semi-stranger in the maternal body without any immunological problems! Thus pregnancy can be defined as a miracously succesful case of transplantation. In that sense there is indeed, as Irigaray says, a maternal “toleration of the other's growth within itself”.

The placenta as mediator between mother and fetus
But this toleration this sacrifice should not be understood as a simple surrender of the maternal body to the biological threats presented by the fetus (such a surrender would of course be illogical from an evolutionary point of view: if the mother becomes ill and dies, the fetus dies as well). The toleration by the mother’s body consists rather in the fact that it renounces the immediate relationship with the fetus and allows this relationship to be mediated by a third, the placenta, which is related both to the mother through the uterine wall and to the fetus through the umbilical cord. The placenta can play this intermediating role thanks to its special anatomic status as a hybrid, a fusion of fetal and maternal tissues. From a biological viewpoint, the placenta is a synthesis of mother and fetus – a synthesis, however, which is relatively independent of both, since it functions as an external and independent organ. In one sense, the placenta is an organ belonging to both mother and fetus; in another sense, it belongs to neither, since it is literraly placed between them. It is this hybrid nature that enables the placenta to act as a filter and sluice between the separate blood circulations of mother and fetus (hence mother and fetus can have different blood types – a transfusion of foreign blood is normally extremely dangerous).

The sacrificial third of tertium non datur
At the same time, however,
this hybrid nature of the placenta seals its fate as a vanishing mediator – that is to say: its fate as waste, as the material leftover of the process of pregnancy and birth. There is a certain logic to this discarding of the placenta. The purpose of pregnancy is, after all, the production of child and mother as separate, autonomous beings.

In light of that purpose, the placenta must appear as an (onto)logical monstrosity, a mythical Chimera, an incarnate contradiction that threatens the logical consistency of reality itself. This monstrosity appears concretely and strikingly in the bloody and shapeless mass which is the afterbirth. This grotesque mass cannot not be a skandalon (Greek for obstacle) for the tertium non datur of normal reality where the binary logic of A or not-A prevails: each being is one or the other, but not something in-between. Contrary to this binary logic, the placenta says insolently: tertium datur, there is a third between mother and fetus. Hence the placenta must disappear, must be buried or simply thrown away, in order to restore the logical consistency of our familiar reality. As the medium between mother and fetus, the placenta must have this monstrous character of being in-between, this incestuous fusion of fetal and maternal tissues (and in that sense, one can ask if not every medium of communication necessarily shares in this monstrosity). But for the very same reason, the placenta must necessarily disappear in the mutual mediation of mother and child as separate beings. In this mediation, the placenta is the vanishing mediator. Thus the “loss of the middle” – so deplored by conservatives – has here a positive function, constitutive of reality as such.

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