Keeping Marriage in the Family

You might be a redneck, says Jeff Foxworthy, if you go to your family reunion to meet women. That’s the sort of attitude faced by Eleanor Amrhein and Donald Andrews, first cousins who fell in love and decided to get married. When Andrews proposed, he asked his beloved, "Are you prepared to go through the hell we’re going to go through?"

He knew what he was talking about. When the two started living together, they told The Washington Post in 2005, Amrhein’s parents severed relations with her, and friends accused them of defying rules set down in the Bible. "Everybody thought I should be ashamed of it," said Amrhein.

Lots of couples have to deal with disapproval of their marital choices. But Amrhein and Andrews had to deal with something more formidable: the state law of Pennsylvania, where they live. Like 24 other states, it forbids first cousins from marrying.

The cousins went to court to request a waiver. But a judge refused, citing the risk of birth defects in any children they might bear — even though they said they did not plan to have kids.

So they drove to Maryland, which takes a more relaxed view of such unions, and said their vows there. In no time at all, a Maryland state legislator said he might introduce legislation to outlaw first-cousin marriages. "It’s like playing genetic roulette," said Democratic Delegate Henry Heller.

Much of the world, particularly the Middle East, regards marriages between first cousins as no big deal. In some places, according to a 2002 article in the Journal of Genetic Counseling, "20 to 60 percent of all marriages are between close biological relatives." Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Albert Einstein all married first cousins. A friend of mine met two Iraqi men who said they got grief for marrying outside the family.

But in this country, many people see consanguineous unions as unhealthy, unnatural or un-Christian. The original point of laws barring first cousins from marrying was to avoid genetic defects in their offspring. But science has allayed most of the fears.

That article in the Journal of Genetic Counseling, written by a panel of scientists, reported that the risk of serious birth defects for children of ordinary married couples is from 3 to 4 percent. The risk for children of first-cousin couples is higher by as much as 2.8 percent — which means the odds against it are no worse than 15 to 1.

That danger, says the group Cousins United to Defeat Discriminating Laws Through Education (CUDDLE), is lower than the risk caused by smoking, drinking or illicit drug use — none of which is considered grounds for barring people from marrying. As any parent knows, there is a large element of "genetic roulette" in any pregnancy.

Besides, laws against marriage between first cousins do absolutely nothing to stop them from bearing children. In the days before the sexual revolution, a legal ban might have had some effect. But today, such couples can have sex, live together, get a mortgage and breed like rabbits, all unencumbered by the bonds of matrimony. (Andrews and Amrhein lived together before tying the knot.)

Social conventions have evolved so that the law has become irrelevant to its main purpose. A ban can’t prevent first cousins from spinning the roulette wheel. All it can do is deny their children the protection that goes with having married parents.

So what possible purpose do these laws serve? They can’t fall back on the prevailing rationale for banning gay marriage — preserving a vital, age-old institution in its original form. Cousins have been marrying for as long as marriage has existed. Here, tradition argues for being permissive, not restrictive.

The bans might be justified as an expression of moral disapproval, but the basis for that would be pretty thin. Most religions allow first-cousin marriages, as do most Christian denominations. The Roman Catholic Church prohibits such unions, but it also grants waivers. Though the book of Leviticus forbids all sorts of incestuous relations, cousins aren’t mentioned. Even states that forbid consanguineous marriages generally recognize those that were legally contracted elsewhere.

For my taste, these marriages take the idea of a close family a bit too far, or rather a bit too close. But it’s hard to see any convincing reason to stand in the way of cousins who think they were meant to be more than cousins. And lifting the bans certainly might spice up your next family reunion.

This column was originally published in May 2005.