Keeping Marriage In The Family
You might be a redneck, says Jeff Foxworthy,
if you go to your family reunion to meet women. That's the sort
of attitude faced by Eleanor Amrhein and Donald Andrews, first
cousins who fell in love and decided to get married. When Andrews
proposed, he asked his beloved, "Are you prepared to go through
the hell we're going to go through?"
He knew what he was talking about. When the two
started living together, they told The Washington Post,
Amrhein's parents severed relations with her, and friends accused
them of defying rules set down in the Bible. "Everybody thought
I should be ashamed of it," said Amrhein.
Lots of couples have to deal with disapproval
of their marital choices. But Amrhein and Andrews had to deal
with something more formidable: the state law of Pennsylvania,
where they live. Like 23 other states, it forbids first cousins
The cousins went to court to request a waiver. But a judge refused,
citing the risk of birth defects in any children they might bear
-- even though they said they did not plan to have kids.
So they drove to Maryland, which takes a more relaxed view of
such unions, and said their vows there. In no time at all, a Maryland
state legislator said he might introduce legislation to outlaw
first-cousin marriages. "It's like playing genetic roulette,"
said Democratic Delegate Henry Heller.
Much of the world, particularly the Middle East,
regards marriages between first cousins as no big deal. In some
places, according to a 2002 article in the Journal of Genetic
Counseling, "20 to 60 percent of all marriages are between
close biological relatives." Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria,
Sergei Rachmaninoff and Albert Einstein all married first cousins.
A friend of mine met two Iraqi men who said they got grief for
marrying outside the family.
But in this country, many people see consanguineous
unions as unhealthy, unnatural or un-Christian. The original point
of laws barring first cousins from marrying was to avoid genetic
defects in their offspring. But science has allayed most of the
That article in the Journal of Genetic Counseling,
written by a panel of scientists, reported that the risk of serious
birth defects for children of ordinary married couples is from
3 to 4 percent. The risk for children of first-cousin couples
is higher by as much as 2.8 percent -- which means the odds against
it are no worse than 15 to 1.
That danger, says the group Cousins United to
Defeat Discriminating Laws Through Education (CUDDLE), is lower
than the risk caused by smoking, drinking or illicit drug use
-- none of which is considered grounds for barring people from
marrying. As any parent knows, there is a large element of "genetic
roulette" in any pregnancy.
Besides, laws against marriage between first cousins
do absolutely nothing to stop them from bearing children. In the
days before the sexual revolution, a legal ban might have had
some effect. But today, such couples can have sex, live together,
get a mortgage and breed like rabbits, all unencumbered by the
bonds of matrimony. (Andrews and Amrhein lived together before
tying the knot.)
Social conventions have evolved so that the law
has become irrelevant to its main purpose. A ban can't prevent
first cousins from spinning the roulette wheel. All it can do
is deny their children the protection that goes with having married
So what possible purpose do these laws serve?
They can't fall back on the prevailing rationale for banning gay
marriage -- preserving a vital, age-old institution in its original
form. Cousins have been marrying for as long as marriage has existed.
Here, tradition argues for being permissive, not restrictive.
The bans might be justified as an expression of
moral disapproval, but the basis for that would be pretty thin.
Most religions allow first-cousin marriages, as do most Christian
denominations. The Roman Catholic Church prohibits such unions,
but it also grants waivers. Though the book of Leviticus forbids
all sorts of incestuous relations, cousins aren't mentioned. Even
states that forbid consanguineous marriages generally recognize
those that were legally contracted elsewhere.
For my taste, these marriages take the idea of
a close family a bit too far, or rather a bit too close. But it's
hard to see any convincing reason to stand in the way of cousins
who think they were meant to be more than cousins. And lifting
the bans certainly might spice up your next family reunion.
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