Dare to Ask: Marriage, relatively speaking
By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union
How far down the cousin chain does it go before it is legal to marry a
David, Fernandina Beach
In New Zealand it is legal for first cousins to marry - but not for second
cousins. Don't ask me about the logic for that, but I always presumed it was due
to genetic differentiation.
Paula, 40, New Zealand
States have different laws regarding this. In 21 states, it is legal for
first cousins to marry, and Florida is one of them. Twenty-five states prohibit
it, and several others have variable laws. I have not heard of any restrictions
further along the "cousins" chain.
Laura, 50, Jacksonville
Not to kiss and tell, but if you wanna get your nuptial on with your first
cousin, you can do it full-on legally in 19 states, including Florida and
Georgia. Another six states allow it with preconditions, like Maine, where you
need genetic counseling first. Another 25 flat-out say "Nope, ain't gonna happen
here." (New Zealand also allows cousins to marry, even second cousins.)
Medically speaking, there's a myth that having first-cousin sex means Earth
will be running amok with banjo-playing, blank-eyed trolls. Yes, there's a
slightly greater risk a child born of first cousins will have birth defects,
like spina bifida or cystic fibrosis. But we emphasize "slightly." Scientists
reported in The Journal of Genetic Counseling in 2002 that while the risk in the
general population of having a child with a serious problem is about 3 to 4
percent, first-cousin biblical acts increase that by another 1.7 to 2.8
percentage points. That's about the same risk level as for a woman who gives
birth after age 40.
The small risk increase from kin coupling is due to a stronger likelihood
that bad recessive genes will pair up, but that's not because the breeders are
first cousins, researchers say; it's because there may be bad genes in their
family pool overall.
So why is much of America still creeped out by first-cousin marriage when
most other developed nations aren't?
First, there was some lousy evolutionary science in the late 1800s that
scared folks about cousin marriages, said Martin Ottenheimer, retired Kansas
State University anthropology professor and author of Forbidden Relatives: The
American Myth of Cousin Marriage. Though it was later discredited, it took hold
in the U.S. more than in Europe.
Second, as new territories wanted to become part of the growing Union, they
wanted to impress the colonies with their upright ways, so they passed
anti-cousin marriage laws.
"At the time, there was concern that people would become savages,"
Ottenheimer said. "We wanted to appear civilized to ourselves and to Europeans -
even though Europeans were having cousin marriages!"
The issue remains emotional, said Ottenheimer, who questions laws outlawing
"I still get negative reaction. One woman on a talk show said I was going to
hell. But, it's not even prohibited in the Bible."
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers. Send general
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