Consumption of Ayahuasca by Children and Pregnant Women : Medical Controversies and Religious Perspectives
Beatriz Caiuby Labate
Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2011, 43, (1), 27-35.
In 2010, the Brazilian Government agency responsible for drug-related issues formulated official Resolutions that categorized the consumption of ayahuasca by pregnant women and children in the Santo Daime and Uniâo do Vegetal ayahuasea-based religions as an “exercise of parental rights.” Although ayahuasca groups do enjoy a relative degree of social legitimacy and formal legal recognition in Brazil, the participation of pregnant women and children nevertheless continues to provoke heated discussion. This article raises the main issues involved in the public debate over this subject. In the first part, a diverse group of biomédical and health specialists was consulted, and their opinions were briefly analyzed. In the second, a full interview with a follower of one branch of Santo Daime, mother of four children who took ayahuasca during all her pregnancies, and whose children all drink ayahuasca, is presented. Her interview reveals important cultural parameters of ayahuasca consumption. The article
explores common themes and contradictions found between the biomédical, anthropological, and
ayahuasea-users’ discourses. It raises central issues regarding the limits of freedom of religion and the
state’s right to interfere in family matters. The following analysis also has implications regarding the
role of science in influencing policy decisions on drug use.
Keywords : ayahuasca, pregnancy, risks, Santo Daime, teenagers, Uniâo do Vegetal
Ayahuasca, also known as daime, hoasca, or vegetal, is a psychoactive mixture made from the Amazonian plants Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis and contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a controlled substance subject to intemational drug laws. The brew is used in religious and shamanic rituals by Amazonian indigenous groups as well as by urban religions based in Brazil, notably Santo Daime and Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) (for a discussion of the concept of ayahuasca religions, see Labate, MacRae & Goulart 2010; for a broader reference on this phenomenon see Labate, Rose & Santos 2009; Goulart 2004; Labate & Araujo 2004; MacRae 1992). A cover article from the Brazilian magazine Isto É, which is the third-highest selling weekly magazine in Brazil, recently reignited a heated discussion about the consumption of ayahuasca by pregnant women and children. The article, entitled “A Encruzilhada
do Daime” (a play on words that means both “the Daime crossroads” and “the Daime deadlock”), claims that “the -use of ayahuasca by pregnant women is dangerous . . . it is believed that it can provoke neurological alterations in the fetus . . . and for the same reason should not be consumed by children” (Gomes 2010:73). The journalist credits these claims to two psychiatrists, Dartiu Xavier da Silveira and Jaime Hallak. At about the same time. National Geographic aired a series called Taboo of which one episode, entitled “Narcotics” (Valenti 2010), included a segment filmed at the Santo Daime religious community of Centro Eclético da Flor de Lotus Iluminado (CEFLI [The Eclectic Center of the Illuminated Lotus Flower]) in the Brazilian state of Acre.
The fifteen-minute segment emphasized the consumption of ayahuasca by infants and children, repeatedly showing close-ups and scenes of this activity. It is apparent that even if the ayahuasca religions currently enjoy a relative degree of social legitimacy and actual formal legal recognition in
Brazil, the participation of pregnant women, children and adolescents continues to dominate public debate and is frequently used to question the validity of the use of ayahuasca in general (Labate 2005). Very little is known about this subject. From the human sciences literature, there are only a few mentions of ayahuasca use by pregnant women and children: one short personal anecdote about ayahuasca use during childbirth published in the appendix of Vera Fróes Femandes’s (1986) seminal book on Santo Daime; an interview with a professional midwife from the Céu do Mapiá community, the headquarters of one branch of Santo Daime religion in the Amazon interior (Monteiro 2004); and a brief reference to the frequency with which youths of different ages are permitted to consume ayahuasca in the Uniao do Vegetal church. According to the latter source, children less than twelve may participate in
no more than five rituals per year; from twelve to fourteen years of age, they are allowed to consume once a month; from fourteen to eighteen, twice a month; and over eighteen, they may become full members of the church. (Soares & Moura In press). From the biomédical point of view, only one study is known. This focused on 40 adolescents from UDV, and their results were published in a special edition of the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, “Ayahuasca in Cross- Cultural Perspective,” edited by Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Charles Grob in 2005. The editors’ introduction mentions the use of ayahuasca by pregnant women (Dobkin de Rios & Grob 2005a: 119) but no further information was given.
The current article raises the main issues involved in the public debate over ayahuasca use by pregnant women and minors in Brazil. The controversies surrounding this aspect of ayahuasca use highlight the conflicting discourses between anthropologists, the biomédical field, media, ayahuasca users and leaders of other religious denominations. This article presents a history of the regulation of the use of ayahuasca for pregnant woman and children in Brazil, and references relevant biomédical and social science research, as well as native religious perspectives. It serves as an anthropological comment on the topic, pointing out the contradictions and continuities between the different perspectives, and the difficulty in establishing a dialogue between them. First, a diverse group of biomédical and health specialists was consulted, and their opinions are presented. Note that only specialists directly involved in research on ayahuasca and its uses and effects were interviewed, which resulted in a very select group. The field of debate on psychoactive substances is broad and very polarized, so more diverse and more extreme opinions certainly exist. However, it was possible to identify a variety of perspectives inside this field. Following this is an attempt to briefly analyze these discourses and predict possible outcomes for policy making which result from these approaches.
In the second part, given the paucity of published ethnographic information on this aspect of ayahuasca use, the full text of an interview with a follower of one branch of Santo Daime is provided. I have chosen to interview one person at length, rather than provide several briefer interviews of less depth. This person is of particular interest because she is both a professional involved in perinatal activities and
also has had profound personal experiences with ayahuasca herself. In this interview some of the cultural parameters of the use of ayahuasca by pregnant woman and children in the context of Santo Daime are revealed.
Those interviewed for this study were informed of the purpose of this anthropological study and consented to be interviewed and quoted by name. One subject asked to be quoted anonymously.