Why ban cousin marriages in America?

According to many, they cause diseases, they are incestuous and banning such marriages is a no-brainer.

Faheem Younus January 31, 2013
Cousin marriages - while common in Muslim societies - are a big taboo in the US. In fact, 25 US states actually ban such marriages. And the Muslim youth, inadvertently, is buying into this idea.

On the contrary, acceptance for same-sex marriage is gaining such popularity that President Obama invoked gay rights in his inaugural address. My advice; never go to a barber shop in America while you are still mulling over such controversial topics because your mind may sputter a question like,
“Why do we smother the discussion on the topic of first cousin marriages?”

And you may get a response like,
“Well, you don’t have to be an Einstein to know that incestuous relationships lead to diseases in the babies.”

This actually happened to me last week.

In one succinct sentence, my barber spelled out the three oft repeated reasons to justify banning cousin marriages. That they cause diseases, that they are incestuous, and that banning such marriages is a no-brainer.

But there is only one problem; all three reasons should be debunked.

Let’s be clear. I don’t intent to promote cousin marriages, but when a free society supports a ban on such marriages, somebody’s got to question it.

I believe the “Disease-Incest-Einstein” line of American reasoning to ban such marriages is flawed and should be rebutted. So let’s confront them one by one.


The risk of birth defects in children born to first cousins is increased from a baseline of 3-4 percent to 4-7 percent according to the National Society of Genetic Councillors (NSGC). In this modern age, this risk could be mitigated by mandating -- as the State of Maine has done -- pre-marital genetic testing. The NSGC, however, considers the risk to be so insignificant that it does not recommend additional testing or screening.

But wait. It gets complicated; because the risk of birth defects increases with other scenarios too.

As the maternal age exceeds 35, the incidence of foetal abnormalities creeps up to the 4-7 percent range. Should we also ban such women from having children then?

Hereditary diseases are more prevalent in certain ethnicities; cystic fibrosis in Caucasians, beta thalassemia in Italians, sickle cell in Blacks, phenylketonuria in Irish and Tay-Sachs in Ashkenazi Jews.

Why then, allow these groups to freely marry within the same ethnicity?


As you cross the scientific hurdles, you will be confronted with a mountain of taboo cloaked in words like “gross”, “icky”, “yucky”, but where do such taboo feelings originate from? Not a single verse in the Torah, Bible or Quran - books revered by three billion followers of the three Abrahamic religions - prohibits cousin marriage, which were common in Jewish, Christian and Islamic history.

The Bible even mentions various accounts of cousin marriages, such as Jacob and Rachel, Milcah and Nahor, and Jacob and Leah, in the book of Genesis. And please don’t quote the incest prohibitions listed in Leviticus 18. It never mentions first cousins.

Granted, the fact that something is “allowed” does not always mean that it is socially accepted. So if you still feel grossed out by the thought of marrying your cousin, that’s ok.

Hold on to your personal feelings; why impose them on others?


This is the ultimate argument made in support of banning cousin marriages. It’s so obviously wrong that “you don’t have to be an Einstein to figure it out”.

In the evidence driven societies, we have a different word to describe such claims; myth.

Myths are best broken by data. The fact that 20 percent of global marriages take place between first cousins and most societies, including Europe and Canada, consider cousin marriages to be legal should give us a pause.

Muslim Americans have not taken a strong position on this issue. The youth politely decline the option of marrying their cousin and those who may have married their cousins, don’t talk about the fact as if it were a crime.

After I published this piece, a friend - who married his cousin and lives in Texas – tweeted;
“Apparently I am a felon as per the Texas penal code.”

I have learnt my lesson.

America has no appetite to have a rational conversation over the topic of cousin marriages. And I am certainly not having this discussion in the barber shop again. Because after all the research for this article, I realised that actually, you have to be an Einstein in order to believe that there is nothing wrong with cousin marriages.


Because in 1919 Albert Einstein married Elsa Löwenthal - his first cousin.

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This post originally appeared here.

Read more by Faheem here or follow him on Twitter @Faheem
Faheem Younus The writer is clinical associate professor at University of Maryland School of Medicine, USA. The author can be followed @Faheem http://twitter.com/#!/FaheemYounus
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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