Should first cousins be allowed to marry?

WHEN Kimberly Spring-Winters told her mother she was in love, she didn’t expect a positive response — and she didn’t get one.

“It’s wrong, it’s taboo, nobody does that,” she recalled her mother saying.

But shortly after the conversation, Ms. Spring-Winters, 29, decided to marry the man she loved: her first cousin.

Shane Winters, 37, whom she now playfully refers to as her “cusband,” proposed to her at a surprise birthday party in front of family and friends, and the two are now trying to have a baby. They are not concerned about genetic defects, Ms. Spring-Winters said, and their fertility doctor told them he saw no problem with having children.

The couple — she is a second-grade teacher and he builds furniture — held their wedding last summer on a lake near this tiny town in central Pennsylvania. But their official marriage took place a month earlier in Maryland, at Annapolis City Hall, because marriage between first cousins is illegal in Pennsylvania — and in 24 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — under laws enacted mostly in the 19th century.

While many people have a story about a secret cousin crush or kiss, most Americans find the idea of cousins marrying and having children disturbing or even repulsive. The cartoonish image of hillbilly cousins giving birth to cross-eyed, deformed and mentally disabled children has endured in the national psyche. But even in the United States — one of the few countries in the world where such unions are illegal — marriage between first cousins may be slowly emerging from the shadows.

Although it is still a long way from being widely accepted, in recent years cousin marriage has been drawing increased attention, as researchers study the potential health risks to children of cousins. And the couples themselves have begun to connect online, largely through a Web site called Cousincouples.com, which bills itself as “the world’s primary resource for romantic relationships among cousins,” and is trying to build support for overturning laws prohibiting cousin marriage.

For the most part, scientists studying the phenomenon worldwide are finding evidence that the risk of birth defects and mortality is less significant than previously thought. A widely disseminated study published in The Journal of Genetic Counseling in 2002 said that the risk of serious genetic defects like spina bifida and cystic fibrosis in the children of first cousins indeed exists but that it is rather small, 1.7 to 2.8 percentage points higher than for children of unrelated parents, who face a 3 to 4 percent risk — or about the equivalent of that in children of women giving birth in their early 40s.

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