Sunday School: On Kissing Cousins
Skeptics and atheists almost universally support marriage equality across genders, and increasingly independent of number and exclusivity. Lately i’ve read advocacy for *full* marriage equality, including for close relatives (consanguineous relationships). The only reasonable objections i’ve ever heard have to do with the increased risk of disorders and immunodeficiency. However, i’m not versed in the scientific / medical literature, and unless the risk is extreme it seems more appropriate to educate rather than stigmatize (as with teen pregnancy).
So, what should we bear in mind about consanguinamory? Where can we find reliable information (esp. for our large and geographically mobile population)? What should we learn before becoming consanguineous allies? –C.
Well, that’s a question you don’t see every day.
Although I have a fairly strong background in science, I am much better versed in chemistry and physics as opposed to life sciences. So I asked somebody else about the biological end, to enhance our collective understanding.
“Essentially, yes, there is a certain amount of risk in consanguineous breeding,” answered Leslie Kendall, a graduate researcher in genetics at Texas A&M University. “Genetic testing can mitigate some of this as far as well established genetic disorders, but you have to remember that not everything is testable, so even if these parents had clear tests, there is the possibility of something popping up (a greater chance than from non-consanguineous breeding). It depends solely upon what they are bringing to the party.” For a more thorough entry-level explanation, she recommends this very illuminating 2003 Discover article.
Given that cousin marriage is pretty widespread and has been through the majority of human history, and that as a species we seem to have done just fine–albeit with some pretty high-profile outlying exceptions, like the Tsarevich Alexei–rejecting it on a biological basis is illogical. Even an isolated close-relative coupling (half-siblings or closer, as expressed by a mathematical coefficient of inbreeding F) within an otherwise robustly branched family tree is unlikely to have serious deleterious effects, so long as the partners aren’t carriers for a marquee genetic disorder like hemophilia or Tay-Sachs, both of which are testable.
Cultural stigmas surrounding incest, however, can’t really be dismissed with straightforward math in the same way. Ultimately I believe that consenting adults have a right to whatever bedroom activities tickle their individual fancies, so long as they exercise some minimum amount of due diligence to ensure that nobody’s getting hurt in a way they didn’t ask for. Healthy, satisfying relationships between individual persons are good for all of us in aggregate. If a couple experiences genetic sexual attraction, for example, there is no rational reason to treat them differently than any other couple. Much of the discourse on incest centers on abuse, and rightly so, but a marriage between adult siblings doesn’t normalize sexual abuse between minor siblings or a parent and minor child any more than a marriage between two men normalizes the sexual abuse of a boy by an adult man. It turns out the feminists were right–everything centers on consent.
In a fairly stunning coincidence, while I was working on this column, Dear Prudence on Slate ran a letter from half of a consensually incestuous gay couple that basically said exactly what I would have said, except better. I definitely would refer readers to Emily Yoffe’s answer. She appears to be a pretty good model for consanguineous allies!
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Featured image from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007. Also, you can follow Leslie Kendall, who is totally rad, on Twitter here.