Monday, August 23, 2010

The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Surname

Many babies born with disorders because parents are cousins

Hundreds of children in the UK are being born with genetic disorders every year because their parents are first cousins.

Channel 4s Dispatches prepared a report stating that in Britain's Pakistani community, more than 50 per cent of people marry their first cousin, and in Bradford 75 per cent of ethnic Pakistanis do so.

About one quarter of those in the UK's Bangladeshi community follow this practice, and it is common in some Middle Eastern and East African communities.

“It also happens in the white British community: Dispatches features a couple, first-cousins-once-removed, whose daughter died of a genetic disease,” says an article on the Channel 4 web site.

The reporter interviewing affected families, Tazeen Ahmad, is the grandchild of first cousins. Her grandparents had five children die before they were 10, and three that were deaf.

Many British studies have shown the risks of first cousins having children, but many still deny the dangers or say they should not be made public.

The Telegraph reported that many people were upset with Ann Cryer, the former Labour MP for Keighley, for talking about the issue.

"It's a public health issue and we deal with public health issues by raising awareness, by talking about subjects such as obesity, such as drug addiction, such as alcohol," she had said.

"But for some reason we're told that we mustn't talk about cousin marriages because this is a sensitive issue.

"I think it's absurd, we have to talk about it in order to find solutions."


People have married their cousins pretty much the day everyone got together and defined marriage and cousins. This is because every person alive would like nothing more than to keep the feeling of family get-togethers going all year long, especially the parts where you just look at each other and eat drab hamburger patties from Sam's Club while some game you wouldn't otherwise watch plays on TV.

Still, Americans know this is wrong, and that too many generations of it leads to Prince Charleses and high Mountain Dew sales, so they have banned marriages between first cousins outright in 33 states and the District of Columbia.Here are a few famous people who married their cousins ....

Some people argue that many biblical figures married their cousins, as did important Egyptians and millions of people all over the world . Addressing the increased likelihood of birth defects - a study by the National Society of Genetic Counselors says that having a child with your first cousin raises the risk of a significant birth defect from about 3-to-4 percent to about 4-to-7 percent.

Is cousin marriage icky ?...... Why ? .... You can't appeal to Victorian morality; Queen Victoria married her first cousin. You can't appeal to the Bible; in the Bible, God commands marriages between first cousins. Instead, advocates of laws against cousin marriage appeal to science. To let cousins marry, they argue, is "to play Russian roulette with genetics." Many genetic diseases are caused by recessive genes. To get the disease, you have to get the bad gene from both parents. The greater the genetic similarity between your parents, the greater your chance of getting two copies of the bad gene.

But if that's your reason for banning cousin marriage, you've drilled into a mother lode of problems. Many cousin couples can't pass on genetic diseases, since they're infertile. Are you going to ban them from marrying? If not, maybe the 24 states that ban cousin marriage should follow the lead of the five states that allow it if either party is sterile. And if procreation between first cousins is too dangerous, why stop there? Six states ban marriage between first cousins once removed, i.e., marrying the son or daughter of your first cousin. Theoretically, that's half as risky as marrying your first cousin, in terms of increasing the probability of passing on a genetic disease to your kids. How about marriage between second cousins? Theoretically, that's one-fourth as risky. No state bans such marriages. Should we change that?

If your purpose is to prevent people with dangerous genes from marrying each other, why use a crude standard such as kinship? Why not test everybody for bad genes, ban marriage between carriers, and let cousins without bad genes marry each other? Banning cousin marriage keeps these couples in the closet, deterring them from seeking genetic screening, which would help them decide whether they could safely have kids. And as the NSGC study notes, the crude assumption that children of cousins will turn out badly leads to unnecessary abortions.

If you're afraid of mandatory genetic testing and you'd prefer to ban marriage among people in high-risk categories, why not start with fertile women over 40? And what about ethnicity? Cousin couples compare laws against cousin marriage to laws against interracial marriage. They've got it backward. Sickle-cell anemia runs in the black community. Tay-Sachs runs in the Jewish community. The best way to curtail such diseases would be to ban marriages within ethnic groups.

Many advocates of cousin marriage dismiss bans on the practice as racist. The authors of the NSGC study urge counselors to be "culturally respectful" of immigrant communities in which cousin marriage is "traditionally preferred." Why do these traditions promote cousin marriage? In some cases, because it promises "better treatment by in-laws" or because it keeps "goods and property within a family," says the study. That sounds more like pressure than freedom. Maybe we should worry more about whether people in these communities are free not to marry their cousins.

If cultural respect is your principle, how far do you carry it? According to the study, some African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures prefer marriages "between an uncle and niece." Should we respect those cultures by permitting those marriages? The question isn't just hypothetical: Minnesota law has a grandfather clause allowing uncle-niece marriages when "permitted by the established customs of aboriginal cultures."

This is the problem with sleeping with your cousin. You can move on from an ex-spouse or ex-lover, but there's no such thing as an ex-cousin. How are your parents and your ex's parents supposed to handle a nasty divorce or a breakup? How can they support their kids without antagonizing their siblings and their siblings' kids? You've wrecked your whole family. It isn't as bad as if you'd slept with a sibling, but it's a lot worse than if you'd slept with a friend or an officemate. We don't ban you from dating people at the office, but we don't tell you it's a great idea, either.

If you get into bed with your cousin, there's no need for Uncle Sam to throw you in jail. If it works out, great. If not, you'll find yourself in a jail no uncle will let you out of.

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