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Marriage between cousins increases risks to children PDF Print Email

The rise in marriages between cousins ‘is putting children’s health at risk’.

A leading professor is highlighting the dangers of marriage between first cousins, warning that their children are at risk of disabilities.

Baroness Deech, a crossbencher and family law professor has called for a “vigorous” public campaign to deter the practice, which is rising and particularly prevalent in Muslim and immigrant communities. The practice was debated five years ago when the MP for Keighley, Ann Cryer, highlighted the number of disabled babies being born in the town and called for marriage between cousins to be stopped.

55% of British Pakistanis are married to first cousins while in Bradford the figure is 75 per cent. Only 3% of all births in Britain are to British Pakistanis parents but they make up one third of children with genetic disorders.

Lady Deech also warns that marriage between first cousins can be a barrier to integration for minority communities. She believes there should be testing for genetic defects where such marriages are arranged and people who carry genetic diseases should be held on a register, so that two carriers are not introduced. “Some variant of this could be possible in cities such as Bradford with a high density of immigrant population,” she says.

Lady Deech chaired the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for eight years and suggests that married first cousins test embryos for recessive diseases.

She argues that “Human rights and religious and cultural practices are respected by not banning cousin marriage”. “But those involved must be made aware of the consequences.” She says “The local estimate was that 75 per cent of Bradford disabled children had cousin parents and the rate of cousin marriage in the UK Pakistani community is increasing”.

Another city with a substantial immigrant community, Birmingham, has 10% of children of first cousins that die in infancy or have a disability.

Baroness Deech states that the practice has long been associated with immigrants and the poor and is “at odds with freedom of choice, romantic love and integration”. However, factors linked to cousin marriage in the British immigrant community are working against what she calls its “otherwise inevitable decline”.

Finance for instance, as such marriages can be arranged to settle debts. Another can be financial support of relatives abroad. Another may be that it provides a “ready-made framework of supportive family members for a new immigrant spouse”; or that it enables relatives to come to Britain as a fiancé or spouse.

She feels that cousin marriage can be a hinderance to integration of immigrant communities and “arguably to democracy as we know it abroad”. It also carries genetic problems that can be “replicated generation after generation, with accumulated suffering in an extended family”. But Lady Deech does not think we should ban first-cousin marriages like the United States.

“The State would have to show that it had compelling reasons to limit the right to marry and that the means are related to the goal.” But there are compelling arguments to act on health grounds. Personal health is the “fetish of the late 20th century” and people are targeted over smoking, drinking, eating and exercise.

Yet there are cultural differences or ignorance about disabled children, she says. In some minority cultures Women may be blamed for being childless or having disabled children; while the “Muslim view . . . is that it is a consequence of Allah’s will, and they may therefore approach it with fatalism”.

Lady Deech believes in measures to prevent the genetic problems arising from cousin marriage but not in an outright ban.

She says: “There is no reason, one could argue, why there should not be a campaign to highlight the risks and the preventative measures, every bit as vigorous as those centring on smoking, obesity and Aids.” While there was reluctance to “target or upset Muslims over cousin-marriage issues” the practice was not mandated by religion, only permitted, so it is not central to religion, she argues.

Lady Deech thinks a campaign of education needs to start in schools so they understand about genetics and what it means to carry a mutant gene.

“Where marriages are arranged, it is possible to test for carrier status and record the results, without stigmatising individuals.” In the Orthodox Jewish community young people are screened for Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic disorder that prevents mental and physical development, but not given the result. When a match is proposed, a register is checked to ensure two young people who are carriers are not introduced. “Some variant of this could be possible in cities such as Bradford, with a high density of immigrant population”, she argues. Finally she suggests in-vitro embryo testing: ethical objections about this being a slippery slope to eugenics are met by current guidelines under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, she says.

The Muslim Council of Britain, welcomed Lady Deech’s comments, Inayat Bunglawala said that cousin marriage was popular even though Islamic teaching encouraged wedlock outside the immediate family.

“Certainly education has an important role to play in this area. There are clear dangers in marrying a close relative, which need to be better understood. Professor Deech’s recommendation appear to be sensible,” he said.