Research downplays risk of cousin marriages -4/4/02
cmfce at smartmarriages.com
Thu Apr 4 22:04:49 EST 2002
subject: Research downplays risk of cousin marriages -4/4/02
from: Smart Marriages
Interesting example of how marriage laws, myths, taboos, customs, research
intersect. - diane
Research downplays risk of cousin marriages
By Richard Willing
Marriage between first cousins, long a major legal, social and religious
taboo, is far less likely to produce abnormal children than is commonly
believed, a study by leading genetics researchers says.
"Stigma still attaches to these unions," says Robin Bennett, a genetics
counselor at the University of Washington and the study's lead author.
"But there's no good social or biological reason that should be. There's a
lot of misinformation out there that is really holding back some cousins who
want to try to have children," Bennett says.
Bennett's team, which included researchers from Stanford University and the
National Society of Genetic Counselors, spent more than two years studying
health statistics on the offspring of first-cousin marriages in North
America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The researchers concluded that children of marriages between cousins
inherited recessive genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs
disease, in 7% to 8% of cases. For the general population, the rate was 5%.
The study suggests that doctors and genetics counselors not discourage
cousins from procreating. Instead, it says, they should take family disease
histories and offer ordinary genetic services such as fetal and newborn
The study is in the April edition of the Journal of Genetic Counseling.
Despite the findings, some genetics specialists say they will continue to
"A 7 to 8% chance (of genetic disorder) is 50% greater than a 5% chance,"
says Philip Reilly, geneticist and author of Abraham Lincoln's DNA, a
popular history of human genetics.
"That's a significant difference. People counseling first cousins who want
to marry need to be very careful and clear on this," Reilly says.
Scientists say there are at least 5,000 diseases caused by inherited
mutations called recessive genes. Possessing a single copy of the mutation
is often harmless, but if a copy is inherited from each parent, the result
can be death or chronic disease. Because first cousins share a pair of
grandparents, the chances are greater that each will pass a copy of a "bad
gene" to their child, triggering the disorder.
Cousin marriage has been widespread in rural societies, where it serves to
keep money and property within families. The practice is still popular in
much of the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Genetics
researcher Alan Bittles estimates that 20% of marriages worldwide are
between relatives who are first cousins.
Genetics counselors say there are no exact figures for the USA, but
experience suggests that about one marriage in 1,000 is between first
cousins. Jewish and Christian traditions discourage cousin marriage. The
Roman Catholic Church requires cousins to get special permission before they
In Brooklyn, N.Y., a rabbi maintains a database that allows Jews to see
whether a potential marriage partner carries the recessive gene for
Tay-Sachs, a fatal enzyme disorder that is prevalent in Jewish families.
Thirty states do not permit first-cousin marriages.
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