Cousin Marriage - What's Science Got to Do With It?

Filed under: In The News

fingers ringI was raised in a tight-knit family and am still close with many of my cousins. So the thought of being romantically involved with one of them makes me ... uncomfortable. But the truth is 20 percent of marriages around the world are between first cousins.

In the United States, however, marriage between first cousins is banned in 31 states. That is, unless the couple is unable to have children or receives genetic counseling. According to the law, cousin marriage is taboo due to genetic risk, not because of the ick factor.

But in a recent opinion piece, two Zoology professors made an interesting point: While there's a slightly increased risk of birth defects when two cousins reproduce, women who have babies after age 40 are in a similar boat -- a 1.7 to 2 percent increased risk of birth defects and 4.4 percent increased risk of death during childhood. As Jane Seymour, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman and many others know, there are certainly no laws in place banning women who want to be mothers after their 40th birthday from doing so.

So that leaves us in a conundrum. It's almost as if we're hiding our moral stand on cousin marriage behind the guise of science. We don't like the idea of cousins marrying, but instead of saying so, we'll let science do it for us. But recent studies suggest the science isn't holding up. If the risk to the child is small, then should the law have a say in who gets to marry? Why is it acceptable to ban cousins from reproducing, but not a couple over 40? Or couples with known genetic issues?

But yet ... yet, if we're going to let science tell us right from wrong, that creates a new set of problems. As Slate points out, where do we draw the line? First cousins share the same amount of genetic material as an uncle and a niece, or a woman and her half-brother's child. Based on science alone, those relationships are appropriate, even if they make us squirm.

Questions like this one are never as simple as looking at data. Is the cousin marriage ban outdated? Or do laws like this one keep us off a very slippery slope?

Do you think cousin marriage should be allowed?
No. It's morally wrong.167 (24.8%)
Maybe. It makes me squirm, but it's also not any of my business.198 (29.4%)
Yes. What's the big deal?294 (43.6%)
Other -- share with us in comments.15 (2.2%)

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.