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Placental Ethics: Addressing Colonial Legacies and Imagining Culturally Safe and Pragmatic Responses to Health Care in Hawai‘i

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In this essay, I would like to examine the placenta controversy that emerged in Hawaii around 2006 in which hospitals considered placentas as biological human waste and hence prohibited mothers from taking their placentas home. I evaluate this issue as an instance of what José Medina characterizes as “epistemic injustice.” First, I examine the medicalization of the placenta within hospital settings in Hawai’i. Second, I explore Manu Meyer’s work on Native Hawaiian epistemology to help articulate the cultural significance of the placenta. Third, I discuss how the context of colonization fails to recognize the epistemological frameworks of Native Hawaiians related to women’s sexuality and mothering practices, which have had a lasting effect in genuinely understanding the cultural significance of the placenta. Finally, I attempt to utilize Medina’s and Meyer’s work to carve out a community-oriented epistemological perspective that is culturally sensitive to the communities that hospitals serve in Hawai’i.


Celia Bardwell-Jones    
University of Hawai'i at Hilo
United States


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