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May 23, 2008 6:39 PM   Subscribe

Heated controversy over cousin marriages in Britain. The Guardian argues it's fine, legal in the UK for centuries, done by Darwin, HG Wells and Queen Victoria; and a 2002 study (prev) found little increased risk. But in Bradford, England, where half of babies born are to ethnically Pakistani parents, cousin marriage is very common -- as high as 70% in that community. Bradford, with 1% of British population, has 70 youths with terminal disorders which lead to dementia-type illnesses – eight per cent of the UK total. Should the government ban cousin marriage? Encourage genetic testing? Or keep its mouth shut?

The fact that consanguineous marriages are most common among Muslim Pakistani immigrants makes the discussion more contentious. The Environment Minister Woolas was rebuked in February for expressing concerns intemperately.

According to a 2005 BBC investigation, British Pakistanis account for 3.4% of all births but have 30% of all British children with recessive disorders, and the Birmingham Primary Care Trust estimates that one in ten of all children born to first cousin marriages in Birmingham's large Pakistani community either dies in infancy or goes on to suffer serious disability as a result of recessive genetic disorders.

The 2002 study may have underestimated risk by ignoring the compounding effect -- i.e. the risk for two cousins whose family hasn't previously mixed may be very different from that in an extended family (e.g. the Windsors) who mix repeatedly for generations. And professor Alan Bittles, a leading expert, notes that within some communities even non-cousin marriages carry higher risks of these rare genetic disorders because those involved are from the same "biraderi" or clan.

Better data is on the way from the Born in Bradford study (wiki), now a year old. It's the largest children's health study in the world, aiming to track all babies born in the city from autumn 2006 to early 2008 (approx. 10,000 children) until age 16. They have found 150 different genetic disorders among those children, where 20-30 would be expected in a comparable city.
posted by msalt (26 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it would make more sense to require genetic testing for recessive genes in the case of a first-cousin situation then simply banning it entirely, even for people who wouldn't otherwise have problems.
posted by delmoi at 7:17 PM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

The answer is not banning cousin marriages. As Professor Bittles states in the BBC article, the answer is better genetic screening and counseling for all recessive disorders, and education aimed toward this population in particular. Genetic testing and counseling has reduced incidences of Tay-Sachs Disease by 90% among Ashkenazi Jews over the past 30-plus years, for example. Despite the risk of TSD, no one ever suggested that Ashkenazi Jews should not marry or reproduce -- at least, I hope not.

It seems to me there's a danger of condemning a cultural practice that does not, in fact, greatly increase the risk of recessive disorders in general, and that this condemnation may take on xenophobic overtones.
posted by IcyJuly at 7:20 PM on May 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

There's an unspoken idea here I always found puzzling -- namely, the concept that incest == inbreeding. The two are not the same.

In other words, even though the argument is entirely about children, the debate is entirely about marriage, as if they were identical. I do not, of course, mean to imply that they are unconnected, but they are certainly not the same.

There are a few possible reasons I can think of why the terms of debate are usually set this way:

1) Even the possibility of allowing couples to marry but forbidding them from having children is considered culturally unacceptable, but merely forbidding couples from marrying in the first place is considered more culturally acceptable.

2) If the debate is focused on children rather than marriage, this quickly widens the debate beyond incest-related genetic disorders to all recessive genetic disorders, which is avoided because it either:
2a) opens the door to widescale genetic testing and eugenics programs, which is considered unacceptable,
2b) widens the subject of debate past incestuous couples to nonincestuous couples, which is considered unacceptable, or
2c) widens the subject of debate past certain ethnic minorities to the general population, which is considered unacceptable.

3) The debate is not actually really about inbreeding at all, it's about incest, and inbreeding is merely being used as a false "rational" argument against all incest, even those types which do not lead to inbreeding (just as, for example, "couples should be able to have children" is sometimes used as a false "moral" argument against gay marriage).

I have my own strong opinions on this (full discolsure: I've been an activist for consensual adult incest for some time), so I'm always fascinated by the way the debate plays out in the public sphere.
posted by kyrademon at 8:41 PM on May 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

First cousin marriage is not OK.

Look at the British Royalty, those mutants.

Look at villages in Pakistan, where dementia from incest passes for village life. Get out the rocks we are going to kill some one that we gang raped today. I mean, c'mon, where first cousin marriage is frequent, the entire situation degrades into depravity. Look at that family where there were 21 children, and the last seven didn't even learn to walk on two feet, until a boatload of therapists showed up, and taught them as adults. The idea that incest is somehow a way to corral resources, indicates a decline in reason already well underway.

Where I live, first cousin marriage is illegal, unless the first cousins are over 55 years of age, and sterile. We surely know why this is, since it is Utah. It became obvious, that if they didn't pay attention, there would be nothing but first cousins to choose from. Incest combined with polygamy creates a very shallow gene pool.

Advocating incest invites pedophilia and encourages a debauched central family. Children need a more stable environment than that, and need the time to grow up, and outward from their families of origin. Why should one sibling, be enslaved by the appetites of another, say older sibling? Who is going to ride herd on this in a family?

The endgame of cultures that encourage cousin marriage, is control, not affection. Typically the result is bartered girls. It is a stop loss procedure, for familial resources.

I don't think it is impolite to point out how damaging cousin marriage is, to a society, and to its individual members, and legislate against it. Sorry, you came to our nation to enjoy its fruits, follow our rules, so it can stay the place you liked, to begin with. This goes double for polygamy, and arranged marriages for under-aged brides.
posted by Oyéah at 9:28 PM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oyéah: my maternal grandparents were first cousins and did not spawn debauched mutants. I take exception to your generalisations. The current policy of toleration (I don't think anyone no-one is encouraging cousin marriage per se) seems to me as it should be.
posted by misteraitch at 10:57 PM on May 23, 2008

I just can't write a comment without a typo: I don't think anyone no-one is...
posted by misteraitch at 11:00 PM on May 23, 2008

Very interesting post, krydaemon. You're absolutely right that the distinction between inbreeding and cousin marriage is taboo; in fact, that Minister got in trouble specifically for using the word "inbreeding" (and also,, to be fair, "Muslim" which is more objectionable) in describing this problem. Here in the US, there was a popular TV movie championing the right of people with Down's Syndrome to have children (as marriage was already allowed), and the concept of marriage without children being allowed just seems off the table.

Another thing that struck me (and the politics of this might explain why the US and UK are so different here), is that in the UK people casually talk about genetic counselling, but I guarantee you that if a US government official did, it would quickly turn into a huge fight over abortion.
posted by msalt at 11:11 PM on May 23, 2008

Don't ban the marriages, but require genetic testing in first & second cousin situations, and ban having children if those tests find issues.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:21 AM on May 24, 2008

Under Islamic law, daughters are owed a share of the family inheritance, and by marrying daughters off to paternal cousins, wealth stays in the family. A few years ago, I read a book entitled Republic of Cousins which studies this phenomenon in detail. From what I remember from other public health studies, the phenomenon of two 1st cousins getting married does not, by itself, lead to a significant increased risk of genetic disorders among children. However, the institutionalization of marriage between cousins across generation does (as one would expect) result in a measurable increase in genetic problems.

My own religious tradition prohibits marriages between 1st cousins and 2nd cousins. Marrying my 3rd cousin would be allowed, but since I grew up with and am close with some of my 3rd cousins, the idea seems creepy. But my 3rd cousin and I would use this fact to amuse people at parties. People would ask how we were related, and we'd say, "Oh, we're cousins. Distant cousins." How distant? people would ask. "Distant enough that we could marry each other," we'd answer.
posted by deanc at 1:26 AM on May 24, 2008

First cousin marriage is not OK.

Pretty common in New Zealand and doesn't seem to cause any problems.

Sorry, you came to our nation to enjoy its fruits,

They're in Britain, you're in the UK. Pity you can't blame your illiterate dogmatism on incest.
posted by rodgerd at 1:47 AM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Rogerd - were you being ironic about illiterate dogmatics, or did you intentionally put "UK" for "US"? oyeah lives in Utah, sure, but Americans don't have the monopoly on "love it or leave it" thinking. Unless you're into making negative generalisations about people from other countries or cultures... and there's a word for that, isn't there?

My husband's very white, very Yorkshire family has had the occasional marriage between first cousins. Make all the banjo jokes you want, but they have the normal number of toes. No genetic disorders, all fairly long lived. They also tend to marry from well outside their local gene pool in between the cousin marriages (as in, partners from other countries or from far and wide across the UK). The family gene pool is probably varied enough to suppress the expression of any recessive family strains that might be magnified by first cousin marriage. His parents are, in fact, first cousins. He and his brother have both partnered with women born thousands of miles from Yorkshire, which has to add some real variety to the genetic mix. Say that our children (or the children of our children) decided to marry. Compared to a completely unrelated couple from a stable village, how much more would these hypothetical cousins have in common with each other genetically?

Aside from cultural pressures on property, the Pakistanis I know in the UK seem to also tend to favour cousin marriage because of the way family visas/sponsorship work. It's easier to sponsor someone to come over if they're your relative. It shouldn't matter with fiancé or spousal visas, but I'm always gently amazed at how engrained the sponsorship idea really is. The two ideas probably reinforce each other.

I know the definition of the word "cousin" can shift from culture to culture, depending on how you track family trees (matrilineal/patrilineal) and how you actually use the word. I have Filipino friends who call people who come from the same village as their extended family their cousin, though there is no actual blood tie between them. From the standpoint of being considered in or out of their family, the non-blood relation friend with the hometown tie is considered to be as much a cousin as someone who is their mother's brother's child. Maybe this "who's your cousin" question might explain some of the variability in cousin marriage data?
posted by Grrlscout at 7:45 AM on May 24, 2008

I suspect the problem here isn't the cousin marriages themselves, but the overall level of inbreeding within the population, leading to a gene pool within the community with an unusual excess of rare alleles. I don't know if banning cousin marriages would fix it - you might just end up with more distant marriages within the same community, which could easily cause the same problems.

Genetics testing and counseling would have more of an impact, but really the only way to 'fix' the situation is to get some fresh gene flow into the population, which would require them to stop being so insular and start marrying out of the community. I don't know how you'd ethically promote this, short of fixing any immigration policy irregularities that encourage it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:23 AM on May 24, 2008

This also touches on the social insurance controversy, like helmet laws, smoking restrictions, etc. In Britain, with national health insurance, do people feel there is more role for the government or society to criticize choices that might result in huge expenditures that all share?

Those more supportive of consanguineous marriages in the UK often point to women choosing to have children after 30, who also have a somewhat higher rate of birth defects, and say "Why should that choice be different than marrying your cousin?"
posted by msalt at 9:42 AM on May 24, 2008

More than once, I have picked up a Wodehouse novel in search of cheerful light quips and screwball comedy, and been somewhat bewildered to find that the ingenue hero and his love interest are first cousins. Nowhere does anyone in the book remark on how adorably and hilariously he's courting his uncle's daughter. It's surreal.

I too am descended on one side (at least) from a cousin marriage, and none of us are mutants or debauched, but plenty of us can't see a damn thing. I've always had the highest lens prescription of anyone I knew. It isn't a repulsive practice to me, just seemingly unwise in the long term.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:27 AM on May 24, 2008

A cousin marriage here and there is one thing. A child of first cousins marrying his first cousin who also was the child of first cousin and then marrying off that child to its first cousin, also produced by first cousins - is another thing...and as a cultural institution seems like a Very Bad Idea. Sure they could do genetic testing but since Britain is a socialized country, everybody else must foot the bill just because some dude or his family refuses to branch out a bit. It's just easier to ban it altogether, probably.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:33 AM on May 24, 2008

Secular law should trump culture, or religion, in a democratic society. Society has to figure out what bills it wishes to pay.

As a secular society we attempt to look after the health of our populations, by legislation, rather than action in the US. We try to legislate against mutagens not too successfully, but with some success.

We try to legislate against prenatal practices and drugs, that hurt children. One of the simplest ways to protect children from genetic defect, is to limit marriage between close cousins. It also makes clans, and cultural groups go outward in their search for mates, so that these groups become more integrated into society as a whole.

It is one thing to celebrate one's own past and cultural mores, and another to emigrate to the US and plan to make your own town of relatives, that is essentially the place you came from. If life was so grand there, why not stay there? It is not as if the entire village can move so that they can have a better life, in a society that is more abundant while utilizing the benefits, and increasing the deficits of that society.

The US could do a lot better for our unborn and born by making sure every mother and child has enough to eat, and has proper medical care. I know the UK has better medical coverage for its citizens.

Some things have to end at the border, honor killing, arranged marriage by force, cousin marriage are a few of these things.

The wisecrack about the Royal Family being mutants, was just a wisecrack. Really they are lovely people. God, I can't stop myself.
posted by Oyéah at 10:53 AM on May 24, 2008

no one ever suggested that Ashkenazi Jews should not marry or reproduce

On the contrary, in the 1930s I bet that a sizable minority within the western medical establishment would have felt this way. The Nazis learned eugenics from the Americans, after all - racial hygiene, keeping bloodlines clean, and weeding out inferior genetic stock was considered obvious common sense in the "good old days".
posted by Meatbomb at 10:55 AM on May 24, 2008

Heres a recent Radio 4 programme covering this. In summary they concluded that one couple of cousins marrying is not really a problem, but a whole community all marrying cousins over a long period = bad news.
posted by Lanark at 1:00 PM on May 24, 2008

Oyeah --

The situation you describe can indeed cause problems. However, it is also not a universal situation.

Just as ending polygamy is considered a civil rights issue in Utah and parts of the Middle East, because it is unfair to women as practiced, while decriminalizing polyamorous marriage is considered a civil rights issue in other parts of the U.S., because it creates an unfair discrimination against unconventional families, there are different types of cousin marriages. If you take a look at the pleas from sad lovers in the rather earnest U.S. cousin marriage movement as a whole, you get a very different impression of the issue than you probably do in Utah alone.

If multigenerational inbreeding is the issue, than that is what should be discussed. If women's rights are the issue, then that is what should be discussed. Blankly shoving those issues into the general slot of incestual marriage does no one any favors; the issues are related but not the same, and this serves only to obscure the debate and toss out the good along with the bad.

Your tendency to conflate issues into overly large categories also bleeds over into your larger argument. I am in total agreement that, for example, honor killings should be against the law. Conflating that into a morr general argument that people who wish to maintain cultural integrity in a new country are somehow automatically in the wrong for doing so is silly.
posted by kyrademon at 2:03 PM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

First cousin marriage is problematic if it involves successive generations of 'inbreeding' because recessive genes tend to show up more frequently than they would randomly. But so long as every alternate or second or third generation marries 'new' or extra-familial blood, it is no more problematic than two strangers marrying, one or both of whom may carry 'problematic' genes. If any society legistates against first-cousin marriage because of the possible undesirable genetic outcomes, it should also do the same with mothers who carry the gene for hemophilia, or parents who do for any other physical or mental disorder. In certain societies, such marriages are taboo, but that does not mean there is a compelling scientific reason for the taboo since such taboos typically predate rational and scientific investigation. With advances in technology and the advent of amniocentesis and other similar procedures, genetic 'defects' can be identified before birth, whether as products of first-coursin marriage or otherwise.
posted by Azaadistani at 4:25 PM on May 24, 2008

Hmm. I seem to recall my batshitinsane intro to anthropology prof (doesn't everyone have one?) citing inbreeding as the reason for decreased genetic faults in certain isolated tribes. Of course, they didn't have any form of medicare, so inbreeding forced recessive genes into full expression far more often, resulting in the death of the afflicted person, removing them from the gene pool...
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:02 PM on May 24, 2008

With advances in technology and the advent of amniocentesis and other similar procedures, genetic 'defects' can be identified before birth

True. But if the parents of the fetus aren't willing to abort, identifying the defects before birth doesn't help, does it? I don't know if abortion is considered acceptable on these grounds in the Pakistani community in England or not. Anybody?
posted by msalt at 12:20 AM on May 25, 2008

My understanding is that abortion is not really an option for a religious muslim - but then again, people are people. Just because your imam says its sinful doesn't mean you're any less inclined to do it if faced with necessity - just like many christians have abortions, despite the official ban on it from church figures of all stripes.

For the person talking about socialised medicine and taxpayers footing the bill for abortion: the laws here differ considerably from the US. The necessity of referral from your registered GP's surgery to get an NHS termination is a barrier of sorts, particularly if the GP does not agree with termination or with your particular request for termination and refuses to sign off. A GP has the legal right to do this. A woman who doesn't want to deal with the hassle of going to her GP or registering at another GP's surgery to get around the refused referral can refer herself to a private organisation, such as Marie Stopes, but she still legally needs two doctors to examine her, determine the age and size of the fetus, and agree that the termination can and should take place. When a friend of mine did this two years ago in London, the whole thing, including doctors fees and the procedure itself, cost her close to £850. (~$1700 US)
posted by Grrlscout at 1:57 AM on May 25, 2008

This also touches on the social insurance controversy, like helmet laws, smoking restrictions, etc. In Britain, with national health insurance, do people feel there is more role for the government or society to criticize choices that might result in huge expenditures that all share?

Sometimes. It depends, and often there are other underlying reasons for the criticism....
posted by Helga-woo at 4:37 AM on May 25, 2008

I'm a child of first cousins.

I haven't grown an extra toe yet.
posted by divabat at 5:43 AM on May 26, 2008

>>social insurance => collective right to criticize choices?
Sometimes. It depends, and often there are other underlying reasons for the criticism....

Excellent links, thanks. It's interesting how different the perspective is in the UK vs. the US.

My personal thought experiment: should we create a status of "health outlaws?" In other words, people can choose to marry first cousins, smoke, ride motorcycles without helmets etc. but they lose all rights to health insurance. If they get hurt or sick, they pay cash or don't get treated, and hospitals etc. are absolved of the usual duty to treat them for free. Is that savage? or simply calling the Libertarian bluff, and holding people responsible?
posted by msalt at 8:44 PM on May 26, 2008

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