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Row erupts over first cousin marriage comments

11 February 2008
Appeared in BioNews 444

A Government Minister has sparked anger amongst British Asians, following an article in the Sunday Times in which he highlighted the higher risk of health problems in the children of first cousins. Speaking specifically about the cultural practises of families originating from rural Pakistan, environment minister Phil Woolas, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, told the newspaper that 'a lot of arranged marriages are with first cousins', which produce 'lots of genetic problems in terms of disability'.

Woolas' comments echo those made by Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley, Bradford, on a BBC Newsnight programme in 2005. Ms Cryer supported Mr Woolas' claims, saying that more than half the children in the paediatric wards in her constituency are from the Asian community, even though they make up only 20-30 per cent of the population. She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that she hoped leaders of mosques and community centres would now encourage parents to move away from cousin marriages.

However, geneticist Steve Jones told Today that although there was a higher risk of first cousins having children with health problems, drinking or smoking in pregnancy was 'as bad if not worse'. He also pointed out that 'in Bradford, the Office of National Statistics says there is an increase of about five or so infant deaths a year because of cousin marriage, particularly among the Asian community there', but that the effect was not that great, given that there are around 70 infant deaths altogether in Bradford per year.

A spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), which has called for Mr Woolas to be sacked, said the MP's comments were 'racist and typical of the Islamophobia we have witnessed in large parts of the media recently'.

The more closely related two people are, the more likely they are to carry copies of the same mutated gene. Unrelated parents have around a two per cent risk of having a child with a severe genetic condition, while in first cousins this risk rises to five per cent. So on average, 95 per cent of the children of first cousins will be healthy, although the risk of a recessive disorder increases if there is a family tradition of such marriages. In addition, certain disorders are more common in some populations - for example cystic fibrosis in people of white European origin and thalassaemia in people of Asian and Mediterranean descent.

The Department of Health said in a statement that it did not issue blanket advice to health professionals or members of the public on such a 'complicated and sensitive' issue as the risk of inheriting rare genetic disorders. 'While it is the case that marriages between cousins can result in an increased risk of inherited disease and disability, the key factor in understanding a family's risk is understanding the relevance of any existing history of genetic conditions within the family', it continued, adding 'this is best discussed and assessed in the context of a referral to specialised genetics services. We need to ensure that ethnic minority communities know how to access these services and the advice and support they can offer'.

Backing for minister over first-cousin marriage comments
The Guardian |  11 February 2008
Downing Street rebuke for minister who warned of birth defects in Pakistani cousin marriages
The Daily Mail |  11 February 2008
Minister warns of 'inbred' Muslims
The Sunday Times |  10 February 2008
No 10 steps back from cousins row
BBC News Online |  11 February 2008
6 September 2010 - by Anshu Rastogi 
'When Cousins Marry' (Dispatches) was a difficult film to make. It was painful at times but immensely rewarding in the end. The film was commissioned because it highlighted a potentially avoidable cause of serious disabilities in hundreds of British children each year...
10 May 2010 - by Victoria Kay 
Charles Darwin's concerns that his children's ill health was due to his cousin marriage were justified, according to a new study. The UK-Spanish study, which analysed four generations of Darwin's family, provides statistical evidence of a link between ill health and the degree of inbreeding in his and his wife's families....
22 March 2010 - by Professor Marcus Pembrey 
A report and analysis promoting Baroness Ruth Deech's views on cousin marriage, published in the Times newspaper on Saturday, makes some serious errors and does nothing to either clarify the true health impact of cousin marriage or help couples at risk of recessive genetic conditions...
22 March 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
A leading bioethics professor and crossbench peer is to reignite the debate on the genetic risks of marriage between first cousins...
18 February 2008 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
A UK government minister sparked a controversial debate last week when he claimed that inbreeding in the British Pakistani community was causing a rise in the number of children born with genetic defects. Speaking in an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper, Phil Woolas, environment minister and...
12 December 2005 - by Alastair Kent and Dr Pritti Mehta 
British Pakistanis are under the spotlight yet again, this time not for alleged links with terrorism, but for the practice of cousin marriage. Last week in BioNews, Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Bradford, re-presented her case against cousin marriage. This followed the 'Newsnight' special report (16 November) highlighting that British...
5 December 2005 - by Dr Aamra Darr 
The recent Newsnight programme (broadcast on BBC2, on 16 November) on cousin marriage attempted to deal with a complex health issue, involving the marriage preference of a minority ethnic group, genetic risk, lay and professional understanding of this risk and the attempts to deal with it. Genetics is a relatively...
1 December 2005 - by Ann Cryer MP 
In 2002, 42.2 per cent of all births in Bradford were to families of Pakistani origin, and a further 5.8 per cent were to others from the Indian subcontinent. The incidence of deafness amongst Asian children in Bradford is 4.60/1000 (compared with 1.38/1000 amongst non-Asian children). For cerebral...
18 November 2005 - by BioNews 
A British politician has said that marriages between first cousins should be outlawed because of the increased risk of genetic disorders in their children. Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley, Bradford, told the BBC's Newsnight programme that British Asians should be persuaded to abandon the tradition. A report commissioned by...
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