I'd always thought marrying a blood relative as close as a
cousin was immoral, and certainly risky if you plan to have kids.
Conventional wisdom says only primitive people who live in isolated places
marry cousins. It leads to stupid children. But that's a myth.
It's the sort of myth that leads to stupid laws. Half the states
in America have banned cousin marriage, but there's no good reason for it.
You can marry your cousin and have perfectly intelligent kids.
Take Albert Einstein was he intelligent enough for you? His
parents were cousins, and he married his cousin. So did Charles Darwin and
Queen Victoria. Worldwide, 20 percent of all married couples are cousins.
A lot of "experts," politicians and clergymen, are dead set
against cousin marriage, and they've convinced a lot of people, including
many lawmakers, that marrying a cousin is a bad thing to do.
As with many of our laws, there is little reason for the ban.
The laws date back hundreds of years to a time when the Catholic Church
campaigned against cousin marriages, because in the Bible, in Leviticus, it
says, "None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin."
But a cousin isn't terribly "near." Just ask Brian and Caren
Wagner. Brian's dad and Caren's mom are brother and sister, so Brian and
Caren spent a lot of time together at family functions. Eventually, they
fell in love and decided to marry. This did not go over well with either of
"There was a phone call from my mother, to Brian's father, of,
'What are we gonna do about this?'" Caren told me.
But Brian's father, Dennis, knew their options were limited. "We
said, 'Well, we've got a couple of choices. Either we can say no, we don't
want this to happen' which, you know it wasn't our choice if this is what
they were going to do. They're both over 21. I said, hey, we're not gonna
The parents blessed the marriage. Then Caren and Brian decided
to have kids. They'd heard stories about birth defects and worried that
their kids would be stupid. But they had kids anyway two sons each of
whom went on to be at the top of his class in school.
That confounds the conventional wisdom. Novels like James
Dickey's "Deliverance" and movies like "Brighton Beach Memoirs" reinforce
the notion that cousin marriage will produce retarded children. ("You'll
have a baby with nine heads!") But a study funded by the National Society of
Genetic Counselors revealed that assumptions about cousin marriage are
unfounded. The risks of birth defects or mental retardation are 2 or 3
percent higher among married cousins, but other parental risk factors are
higher. Age, for example, increases the risk much more: There's a 6 to 8
percent chance that a woman over 40 will give birth to a child with birth
It would be ridiculous, however, to prohibit middle-aged women
from having children. It's equally wrong to prohibit cousins from marrying.
There are risks and challenges in any marriage, but it should not be for
politicians to decide such intimate matters as whether you get to marry the
person you love. Love, marriage and procreation are personal choices better
not left to "experts" who are often repeating myths.
There is one real risk, however, to cousin marriage. Pat
Bradfield, Caren Wagner's mother, had a warning about divorce: "You could
divorce your husband," she told Caren, "but you can't divorce the whole
family. Your father-in-law and your mother-in-law would still be your uncle
Now that's expert advice worth considering.