Will Our Children Be Normal?
Perhaps the most pervasive, and unmerited, argument regarding cousin marriages is that the children born to such couples will have mental or physical disabilities, which become a burden on society in terms of tax dollars.
The question is: How risky is it really
to have a child with your cousin? The answer is: Not nearly as risky as so
many other factors for which there is no legislation!
The above graph represents what are called "multifactoral" disorders. These multifactoral disorders include a wide range of problems, and are often associated with low birth weight or premature birth. These problems can include stillbirth, SIDS, under-developed lungs and other vital organs, mental retardation or learning disabilities, anemia, and heart conditions.
This chart indicates the 3% background risk shared by all pregnant women, and comparative increases of risk for various groups.
The graph above illustrates various inherited types of conditions, as well as the background risk (which everybody has) and the increased risk for specific groups. In general, a child who inherits a recessive disorder inherits one defective gene from each parent. Examples of recessive diseases include Cystic Fibrosis, PKU, Tay Sachs and Sickle Cell.
Dominant and Gender- or X-linked disorders, on the other hand, are ones in which the defective gene is inherited from only one of the parents. Any parent who is a carrier has a 50% chance of passing the disease on to their children. Dominant gene disorders include Neurofibromatoses, Marfan Syndrome, and PKD. Some examples of X-linked disorders are Hemophilia and Fragile X Syndrome.
The conditions that are of most concern in cousin couples are recessive conditions, where one defective gene is inherited from each parent. First cousins have a 1.5 to 3% increased risk of having a child with birth defects that are inherited. However, some couples may share no recessive traits, and would therefore have no increased risk.
First cousins, once removed have an increased risk of .75 to 1.5%, and second cousins have no higher risk than an unrelated couple. Double first cousins are rare, but have approximately twice the risk of other first cousin relationships. First cousins whose parents are identical twins are also rare, and have a significantly higher risk as well, having the same number of shared genes as half siblings.
An Issue Of Reproductive Rights
In the spring of 2000, some members of Maryland's House of Representatives presented a bill to prohibit marriages between first cousins in their state. Although this is an infrequent occurrence in Maryland (counties reported a range of one to three incidents per year, mostly from non-residents) the sponsors of the bill believed that such marriages produced physically and mentally challenged children, thus placing an enormous burden on taxpayers' money. They argued for the bill based on erroneous statistics, but failed to validate their information with evidence. The bill died in the senate, but the sponsors have expressed a desire to resubmit it in 2002.
In the spring of 2001, quite a different scenario took place in the state of New Hampshire. First cousin marriages had long been forbidden in that state, and at the request of one of her constituents, Delegate Anne Grassie presented a bill to overturn that law, and allow one inidual to marry the woman of his choice.
Do cousin couples who wish to bear children pose such a risk to society that there should be legislation preventing their right to pursue happiness?
More than four million women become pregnant in America each year, each with a 3% background risk of having a child with a birth defect. Out of those four million women, it is estimated that:
Clearly the evidence proves that legislation against first cousin marriages is an unnecessary measure of prevention. There are far more high risk lifestyles to be concerned with. We, as a society, make use of every opportunity to educate women and couples about how their lifestyle choices can affect their unborn children, while allowing them the freedom of choice. Do first cousins deserve any less consideration?
An Alternative Solution:
While the risk of birth defects is only very slight, it is still something that all first cousin couples should take into consideration. Genetic Counselors are able to determine the margin of risk for a couple by carefully examining the medical history of both sides of the family. In some cases, if a history of genetic disorder is revealed, blood tests can determine whether the couple actually carry the defective gene.
Insurance usually will cover the costs associated with genetic counseling, however, many individuals do not have adequate coverage. Those that do often will not seek counseling for fear of their kinship being exposed, thus making them vulnerable to discrimination and social prejudice. Others may not even realize that medical options exist.
First cousins should be aware of the availability of genetic counseling and testing, and encouraged (but not mandated) to seek the advice of a qualified expert. Information packets could be distributed to any first cousin couple applying for a marriage license, and a voucher program could make counseling more affordable to those who do not have insurance. By providing such information and options, we would be giving cousins the freedom to make an informed decision.
What do the experts have to say??
~ Jacquelyn Krogh, MS, CGC
"We do not restrict
people with autosomal dominant disorders such as Huntington disease who have a
50:50 risk to pass the condition to their children from marrying or conceiving!
There is no social pathology associated with marrying a cousin and in fact
cousin marriages are the norm in many parts of the
In the near future I would expect more states to
make it illegal but, eventually the facts will become known and the trend will
reverse. There is no evidence to support the notion that generations of cousin
marriage in itself results in genetic problems. The evidence indicates quite the
opposite. One must challenge any statements about the dangers of cousins
marrying and make people aware of the facts. That way the next generation may
give up the myth.
I'm not against healthy
relationships. I've not come across any research to suggest that cousin
relationships, between two consulting adults are damaging psychologically in any
way. Cousins share an exclusive history with each other. It's a relationship
where you don't have to create a shared history or experience. You have a head
start on intimacy, in a sense the work is already done for
copyright 2000 Christie Schuler Smith for CUDDLE International and CousinCouples.com
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