As states grapple with limitations on same sex marriage, polygamy, and other moral legislation controversies, scientists may have introduced another areas of potential challenge: the ban on first cousins. The premise for barring first cousins was always based on rather shaky science. Now, scientists are challenging any medical or public policy basis for the prohibition — raising constitutional questions of why consenting adults can be barred from such marriages.
These studies may raise more interesting legal questions than medical questions.
Zoologists Hamish Spencer and Diane Paul are leading one such challenge to the medical and public policy assumptions behind the prohibition. Thirty-one states outlaw marriage between first cousins — making this country the most hostile to such marriages despite the fact that they are lawful in many countries. Most of these laws date back to legislation after the Civil War.
There is date on the impetus for these laws. In Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage, Kansas State University anthropologist Martin Ottenheimer argues that the bans were the result of now-discredited 19th century research on birth defects among children born to first cousins.
However, according to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, birth defects are only 2 to 3 percent more common in children born to first cousins than among the general population. That would not be enough to justify the ban — particularly given first cousin beyond the child bearing age.
Marriage is a protected area under the Constitution and the denial of such unions raises serious questions of equal protection, due process, and other constitutional rights.
For the Forbidden Relatives article, click here.
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