The debate between first cousin marriages remains open to interpretation.
During his reign of England in the 1500’s, King Henry VIII decreed marriage between cousins to be legal. In fact, two of his six wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard were both cousins.
In recent years, there has been a great deal of debate in the UK, through government public relations campaigns, about whether to discourage or even ban marriage between first cousins, particularly amongst the Pakistani immigrant population.
Only 1 per cent of unions in the UK are between cousins, but in Bradford that figure is much higher with 18 per cent of marriages taking place between first cousins. 37 per cent of these are within the Pakistani community.
So, what has prompted this debate? Are first cousin marriages still relevant to a changing Britain? Numerous studies in the past few years have considered the impact of first cousin marriages on new births.
A Channel 4 Dispatches report, broadcast in 2010 (When Cousins Marry), came down heavy on the side that first cousins marrying can lead to major medical disabilities and disorders in new-borns.
This was illustrated with the case of a Pakistani family from Bradford who had Mausan, one of three children, who was severely disabled with blindness, had trouble walking and needed 24/7 care.
Mausan understands very little of what others tell him. His two sisters have also inherited the same disease and cannot see or hear. This rare genetic disorder is called Mucolipidoses type 4, and causes a reduction in the brain capability thus, affecting speech, sight and other key functions for a human being, such as waste removal.
The chance of the disability being passed on from the parents to children is highly increased if the mother and father are first cousins and carry the recessive gene.
Birmingham-based Dr David Millford specialises in Children’s Renal & Urology. Using national database statistics, he states that the reporting of cousin marriages resulting in genetic disorders had increased from 17 per cent to 21 per cent from 2004 through to 2009.
With the health risks so apparent, why do first cousin marriages happen? Some argue that such marriages are beneficial for economic reasons. They mean that wealth can be kept intact in families and ensure dowries are kept low.
In many South-Asian customs, a dowry payment can be a very high demand from a wedding suitor, so this is a ‘cheaper’ way of reducing the monetary impact on families.
Marrying first cousins also reduces the marriage age to ensure that starting a family is key to the new unit and thus increasing the numbers in the family as potential wage earners. This is more common among those of low socioeconomic status, among the illiterate, uneducated, and those living in rural areas.
Interestingly, these customs have been transported from the homelands of many immigrants and still prevail today in areas such as Bradford and Birmingham which have heavy concentrations of Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.
Some societies also report a high prevalence of first cousin marriages among land-owning families and the ruling elite: here the relevant consideration is thought to be keeping the family estate intact over generations.
Speaking to a nurse at the Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital, DESIblitz found that a large number of admissions to the private wing of children with genetic defects due to first cousin marriages, are from wealthy families, suggesting that the parents come from a long line of generations where marriage between cousins was popular.
In another investigation, led by Dr Eamonn Sheridan, a Born in Bradford study followed the health of 13,500 babies delivered in the Bradford Royal Infirmary between 2007 and 2011. It found that the number of birth defects was double than the UK average. The report produced answers higher than expected in rates of deaths and congenital abnormalities in these babies.
The children of such unions had a six per cent chance of having heredity genetic disorders compared to an average in the study of 3 percent.
Taking in socio-economic factors, it concluded that it is in fact the ‘cultural practice’ of marriage between first cousins, which is a bigger factor than any other reason – outweighing the effects of deprivation in parts of Bradford.
But the study also admits that while the possibility of genetic disabilities are increased in first cousin marriages, this risk is still small and by no means will every child be born with a disability.
Dr Rafaqut Rashid, a GP explains: “Different families will take on this advice in different ways. Patients should be given an informed choice. We don’t want to force anything on patients. They will measure what’s beneficial for them. That’s not for us to dictate.
“Families tend to weigh the benefits in accordance to the advice you give them. Patients often recognise social benefits to cousin marriages: extended families, social stability, marital stability.”
While cousin marriages are seen as a common thing here in the UK, in the USA, it has become an on-going debate and some couples have faced backlash. A New York Times article by Sarah Kershaw documents fear by many married cousins of being treated with derision and contempt.
Another study by Robin Bennett, a University of Washington researcher, who led a major NSGC study piece on cousin marriages, has said that much hostility towards married cousins constitutes discrimination:
“It’s a form of discrimination that nobody talks about. People worry about not getting health insurance — but saying that someone shouldn’t marry based on how they’re related, when there’s no known harm, to me is a form of discrimination.”
William Saletan of Slate magazine accuses the authors of the study of suffering from the ‘congenital liberal conceit that science solves all moral questions,’ while readily conceding that banning cousin marriage cannot be justified on genetic grounds.
Currently, the idea that incest laws should only encompass members of close family stems from the desire to protect vulnerable children.
From the biological point of view however, close inbreeding can be harmful and undesirable, even when it involves relatives outside the nuclear family.
But despite the numerous studies in the UK, US and even South Asia, the debate between first cousin marriages remains open to interpretation. While undoubtable risks are there, many believe that the reality of such disabilities occurring is remote and far off.
For a centuries-old custom, cousin marriages remain commonplace in South Asia, and it seems despite an increased awareness of potential harm, it is unlikely that the practice of first cousin marriages in some tight-knit communities will change anytime soon.