Monday, April 21, 2008

OK, we were wrong...

The article we remembered was from all the way back in ought-two - not from "a couple of years ago". Here are some excerpts:

Few Risks Seen To the Children Of 1st Cousins

New York Times, By Denise Grady, April 4, 2002

Contrary to widely held beliefs and longstanding taboos in America, first cousins can have children together without a great risk of birth defects or genetic disease, scientists are reporting today. They say there is no biological reason to discourage cousins from marrying.

First cousins are somewhat more likely than unrelated parents to have a child with a serious birth defect, mental retardation or genetic disease, but their increased risk is nowhere near as large as most people think, the scientists said.

In the general population, the risk that a child will be born with a serious problem like spina bifida or cystic fibrosis is 3 percent to 4 percent; to that background risk, first cousins must add another 1.7 to 2.8 percentage points, the report said.

Although the increase represents a near doubling of the risk, the result is still not considered large enough to discourage cousins from having children, said Dr. Arno Motulsky, a professor emeritus of medicine and genome sciences at the University of Washington, and the senior author of the report.

''In terms of general risks in life it's not very high,'' Dr. Motulsky said. Even at its worst, 7 percent, he said, ''93 percent of the time, nothing is going to happen.''

The report is in today's issue of The Journal of Genetic Counseling.


Dr. Motulsky said medical geneticists had known for a long time that there was little or no harm in cousins marrying and having children. ''Somehow, this hasn't become general knowledge,'' even among doctors, he said.

Twenty-four states have laws forbidding first cousins from marrying, and seven states have limits like requiring genetic counseling. But no countries in Europe have such prohibitions, and in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, marriages between cousins are considered preferable.


It is not known how many cousins marry or live together. Estimates of marriages between related people, which include first cousins and more distant ones, range from less than 0.1 percent of the general population to 1.5 percent. In the past, small studies have found much higher rates in some areas. A survey in 1942 found 18.7 percent in a small town in Kentucky and a 1980 study found 33 percent in a Mennonite community in Kansas.


Keith T., 30, said he married his cousin seven years ago and in 1998, frustrated by the lack of information for cousins who wanted to marry, he started a Web site, It is full of postings from people who say they have married their cousins or want to do so.

UPDATE: Cecil Adams weighed in on the topic in ought-four - and reminds us:

An argument can be made that marriages of first cousins descended from strong stock can produce exceptional children. Charles Darwin, for example, married his first cousin Emma, which wasn't at all unusual in their prominent and successful family--their common grandparents were cousins too. Three of Charles and Emma's ten kids died in childhood, it's true, but that was standard for Victorian England; the others went on to productive and in some cases distinguished careers.


Why are Americans and their legal system so phobic about first-cousin marriage while Europeans aren't? Ottenheimer blames several factors. First, bad research in the 19th century greatly exaggerated the dangers of imbecility, blindness, etc, among children of close kin. This research was eventually discredited in Europe, but Americans and their state legislators never got the word. Second, cousin marriage in the U.S. was considered a sign of barbarism (probable translation: hillbillies did it). In Europe, on the other hand, particularly in Mediterranean cultures, cousin marriage had a long and reasonably respectable history, although it's rare today. Finally, European deep thinkers contended that certain forms of cousin marriage increased social cohesion. No such positive arguments were advanced in the States.


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