Kissin' Cousins

Let me start off by saying that I am not romantically interested in any way in any of my cousins, first or otherwise. Nor have I ever been. But when I read this morning that women who sleep with their first cousins have a two percent increased chance of popping out a baby with birth defects, it got me thinking.

See, culture is weird. It creates and encourages complex rules and expectations that are not necessarily connected to reality. Take this cousin thing, for example.

In North Carolina, the state where I currently live, it is legal to marry your first cousin. Some of the other states allow this under certain conditions, but in North Carolina, the field is wide open. This is seen by most Americans as weird and laughable, and I myself made a joke about it a little while back, when North Carolina was passing some stupid new law against gay rights.


There have been a number of cultures throughout history that have actually encouraged the marrying of cousins, and some have argued that marriage between cousins could actually provide a degree of social stability for any resulting children.

But the laws (and cultural bias) against cousin-marrying seem to me to be fairly arbitrary, mostly appealing to a lowest-common-denominator -- this two-percent increase in genetic risk -- instead of actually meeting individuals where they are. It's easier to prohibit cousin-marriage than it is to require genetic tests for all proposed couplings to determine their exact risk factor. Individuals are infinitely complex. Laws can't be, or we'd never get anything done. So until we arrive at our dystopian/GATTACA/thoroughly-genetically-tested future, the laws against cousin-marriage will most likely remain on the books, and the general current of culture will continue to provide generalized mockery as a justification for these laws. This feels wrong to me.

What about that "ewww, gross" feeling you have just thinking about getting it on with your own cousin, you might ask?

Well, what about it? Not so long ago, the average American had that same reaction to mixed-race couplings. Not to mention, you know, other couplings.

All I'm asking is that you think about it -- that you pause to reflect on whether your reaction to cousin-coupling (all appeals to intellect aside) might perhaps be culturally conditioned. And if that's the case... well, what other biases might you be holding onto, just because it "feels gross" when you think about it?

Have you thought about the fact that women who conceive over the age of forty have a ten percent chance* of having a child with down syndrome? Not a ten percent increase in probability, but an actual ten percent chance! And yet while people sometimes look a little askance at an older woman getting pregnant, no one's grossed out by it. No one demands that older women be prohibited by law from having babies.

Our minds are not formed in a vacuum. They are formed in a culture, a culture which shapes and re-shapes them into something that is often only incidentally connected to the truth of a given situation. Are you okay with that? Or are you willing to think about your biases, and dive without fear into the truth?

- - -

*I have since discovered that this statistic (like all statistics) is highly suspect. The rate's still a lot higher than the risk for genetic abnormalities amongst cousins, though, so I figure the point stands.


  1. Do you have a reference/link for the 10% stat?

    1. I got it from a book, which (upon googling, now) seems to have exaggerated. It's still pretty freakin' high, though, and gets higher with every year past 40. At 45 (according to a couple sources I found on the internets) there is a one-in-thirty chance of down syndrome.

      It's possible that the stat from the book was referring to diagnosis only, since 92% of women whose unborn are found to have down syndrome choose to abort... which perhaps brings the stat way down. I'm not sure, though, since statistics are usually just very useful lies.

      But even though you shouldn't trust statistics from a book, the internet still proves that the world is indeed a very scary place.

  2. Here's what Providence Health's website says:

    At 40, your risk of conceiving a child with a chromosomal disorder is 1 in 66. The risk of conceiving a child with Down syndrome – the most common of these disorders – is 1 in 106.

    Less than 1%.

    Sorry to distract from your main thrust, to which I am sympathetic. I'm all for questioning biases.

    1. But I'm also for not spreading misinformation :)

    2. No worries. Accuracy is good. I appended a note. But regardless, the chances are still higher in the case of older women than with cousins, so I reckon my point stands.


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