First Cousins Speak Out for Right to Wed

BY DRU SEFTON c.2004 Newhouse News Service \

Albert Einstein married his first cousin, Elsa Lowenthal. So did evolutionist Charles Darwin, who wed cousin Emma Wedgwood and had 10 children. The Prophet Muhammad married cousin Zaynab bint Jahsh; Jacob and Rachel in the Old Testament were also cousin spouses.

Cousin marriage, or consanguineous marriage, is commonplace throughout history and around the world -- except in America. Here, many states ban the unions based on the long-held notion that cousin marriages are "inbreeding" that produces defective offspring.

But those laws are based on outmoded social stigmas and incorrect scientific studies, genetics experts say. And cousin couples are increasingly speaking out for their right to marry.

Many of the myths date to one particularly erroneous study issued in 1858, said Martin Ottenheimer, author of "Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage." That study, in the Transactions of the American Medical Association journal, concluded that first cousins were too closely related to safely reproduce.

"The research upon which it was based was very, very, very poor. Absolutely wrong," said Ottenheimer, an anthropology professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

But the study gained recognition because it was an era in which Americans were increasingly turning to science for answers. Moreover, Ottenheimer said, the federal government backed the findings, believing that discouraging cousin marriage would more quickly assimilate immigrants.

As a result, many state laws forbidding the marriages date to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Currently:

-- Twenty states prohibit marriage between first cousins.

-- Four additionally prohibit unions between cousins once removed (a difference of one generation).

-- Six states allow cousin marriages only if the couple is above child-bearing age.

-- One state allows first-cousin marriage but bans "double cousin" unions. (That occurs when, for instance, two brothers from one family marry two sisters from another; if each couple has a child, those offspring are double cousins.)

-- Nineteen other states allow first cousins to marry without restrictions.

Because the relationships spark such legal and social turmoil, cousins who fall in love often seek moral guidance.

"My parents had raised me to go to the Bible with any question I had," said Christie Smith of Las Vegas. When she was attracted to her cousin Mark, "I prayed and I studied Scripture. To my surprise, God is OK with cousin marriages."

She found nothing in the Bible forbidding the relationship. Leviticus 18, which details rules regarding incest, does not mention cousins.

Christie and Mark, married five years, host the Web site for CUDDLE International (Cousins United to Defeat Discriminating Laws through Education).

Cousin marriages "aren't nearly as uncommon as people think, they're just kept under wraps," Smith said. Her site at www.cuddleinternational.org gets some 300 hits per day.

Another site, www.cousincouples.com, gets about 600 visitors a day. It's run by Keith Tysinger of Asheboro, N.C., married nearly eight years to his cousin Tammy.

When they announced their plan to wed, "it was terrible," Tysinger said. "My dad said, `They'll put you in jail in some states for that!' Nearly everyone was against us."

The resentment has slowly faded, he said. Now the two are trying to have a baby. And, contrary to widespread belief, their child will not be at a significantly higher risk of birth defects.

"People in the genetics community know those risks are not high, and they have known that for years," said Robin Bennett, a senior genetic counselor and clinic manager for the University of Washington Medical Genetics Clinic in Seattle.

In 2002, Bennett headed a National Society of Genetic Counselors task force that released an extensive study of consanguineous marriage. It showed that cousin couples were only 1.7 percent to 2.8 percent more likely than a nonrelated couple to have a child with a significant birth defect, such as mental retardation or a genetic disorder.

Ottenheimer said one of the first scientifically sound studies was conducted after World War II by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission -- Radiation Effects Research Foundation, under the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

The group was examining genetic problems after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thousands of Japanese citizens participated.

"In order to determine possible damage, they needed to sift out very carefully the possible contamination of the study due to cousin marriage," because the practice was common in Japan, Ottenheimer said. And at that point, cousin marriages were still thought to produce inbreeding problems.

But when scientists examined that separate group of Japanese cousin-marriage offspring for genetic disorders, they discovered far fewer problems than anticipated.

Brandon and Andrew Wagner, 11 and 8 years old, are living proof of the healthy children typically born to cousins. Their parents, Caren and Brian Wagner of Holland, Mich., have been married 12 years.

"One of our great-aunts couldn't believe there wasn't something wrong with the children," Caren said. "She said, `They look so normal.' It was rather comical."

Wagner said she still faces prejudiced reactions, such as that of the co-worker who recently told her she'd "better not mention to too many people" that she married her cousin.

"People expect some two-headed, toothless redneck," Wagner said. "Walking down the street, you can't tell us from anyone else. We're a middle-class, Midwestern American family."

The stigma persists, as do the laws.

Phyllis Kahn, a member of the Minnesota State Legislature, in January 2003 introduced a bill to repeal cousin marriage restrictions. It remains stalled in committee; senators are reluctant to co-sponsor the measure.

Some of Kahn's constituent groups, including Somalis from Africa and Hmong from Asia, were shocked to find the marriages weren't permitted, she said.

"If some people stand to benefit, and there's no scientific reason for them not to, it should be allowed," Kahn said.

Ottenheimer said cousin marriages in other countries serve specific societal purposes, such as promoting equality.

Many cultures practice patrilocality: When a couple marry, the two live with or near the husband's family. "So incoming women are outsiders," Ottenheimer said. But with cousin marriages, "you have a household of groups of related women and groups of related men, each of which have power within the family."

Ottenheimer said reliable statistics on the number of cousin marriages in America are elusive.

But when his book was published in 1996, he was surprised by the hundreds of notes and telephone calls he received: questions, thanks, criticism.

"A number of people were very threatened by the idea of cousin marriage," he added. "This touches very fundamental notions about being human."

STATE BY STATE

States that prohibit marriage between first cousins: Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming

States that ban first-cousin marriages and also prohibit marriage between cousins once removed: Kentucky, Ohio, Nevada, Washington

States that permit marriage between first cousins, but only if one or both parties are past child-bearing age: Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Utah, Wisconsin

States that allow first cousins to marry without restrictions: Alaska, Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia

North Carolina permits marriage between first cousins, but not double cousins.

Source: Cousins United to Defeat Discriminating Laws through Education

Jan. 20, 2004

(Dru Sefton can be contacted at dru.sefton@newhouse.com)