Thursday, 25 Dec, 2008 Science

Scientists Say it's Okay For Two First Cousins to Get Married


Babies born as a result of marriage between first cousins have the same risk of having genetic defects as babies born from women over 40 years old.

Two scientists, who call for the lifting of the taboo on first-cousin families, say that cousins who want to get married should not feel ashamed about it. Women in their forties, who decide to get pregnant, are not made to feel guilty about their decision and the same should be applied to first-cousin families, consider Professor Diane Paul of the University of Massachusetts in Boston and Professor Hamish Spencer of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Despite the fact that marriage between cousins is legal in Britain, some people disagree with the practice, calling for its ban due to the fact that babies born from such families have higher-than-average risk of genetic defects. But according to the two professors, the risk of developing congenital defects in babies born as a result of marriage between cousins is just two percent over the average. The risk of mortality among such babies is 4.4 percent higher than average, which is the same in babies born from women in their forties.

"Women over the age of 40 have a similar risk of having children with birth defects and no one is suggesting they should be prevented from reproducing," said Professor Spencer, the co-author of the research, which is published in the online journal Public Library of Science.

It is interesting to note that there was a time when marriages between cousins were rather common in Europe. The trend changed in the late 19th century, mainly because women became more mobile and the risk of genetic defects in babies became more evident. Early researches in the field of human genetics supported the idea about genetic defects related to the first-cousin marriages. The practice was prohibited by law in the majority of American states, China, Taiwan, North and South Korea, reports The Independent.

Professor Spencer considers that these laws should be annulated. He mainly refers to the United States, where, according to the researcher, the legislation relies of over-simplified views of genetics. "There is no scientific grounding for it," he said.

The question was raised in the UK after MP Phil Woolas, who now holds the position of the Immigration minister, stated this year that marriages between first cousins in Asian communities in the country led to an increased number of babies born with serious health issues.

"A lot of arranged marriages are with first cousins, and that produces lots of genetic problems in terms of disability [in children]," said Mr Woolas.

Short Info about Famous People Who Married their cousins:

The famous American rock 'n 'roll star, country music singer, songwriter and pianist, Jerry Lee Lewis, married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed. He was 10 years older than his wife.

In 1874 the famous American outlaw of the Wild West, Jesse James, married his first cousin Zerelda "Zee" Mimms. They were married for 12 years later and his wife gave birth to two children.

The first wife of H G Wells, a famous English writer, the author of such science fiction novels as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, was Isabel Mary Wells, the writer's first cousin. He later got divorced and married one of his students.

American poet, writer of short stories, editor and literacy critic Edgar Allan Poe clandestinely married Virginia Eliza Clemm, who was his 13-year-old first cousin.

Johann Sebastian Bach, a famous German composer and organist in 1707 married Maria Barbara Bach, who was his second cousin. She gave birth to 7 children. After her death the musician married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, who gave birth to 13 children.

The famous English naturalist, Charles Darwin, married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood. The couple had 10 children.

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