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 Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, said: 'the issue we need to debate is first-cousin marriages, whereby a lot of arranged marriages are with first cousins, and that produces lots of genetic problems in terms of disability'.
Woolas's comments were in reference to the increased risk of recessive genetic disorders - conditions that arise when a child inherits a copy of the same faulty gene from both parents - in the offspring of consanguineous parents. Consanguineous marriages are legal in the UK and a common practice amongst families originating from rural Pakistan - the Telegraph newspaper estimated that 55 per cent of British Pakistanis are married to first cousins. Woolas asserted that 'if you talk to any primary care worker they will tell you that levels of disability among the Pakistani population are higher than the general population. And everybody knows it's caused by first-cousin marriage'. His position is supported by medical research, which indicates that whilst only three per cent of births in the UK are of Pakistani origin, they account for one third of children born with recessive genetic disorders.
Fellow Labour MP Ann Cryer backed Woolas, saying that she believed Pakistani community leaders are 'in denial' about the problem, and that she hoped they would now openly debate the issue and encourage a 'move away from cousin marriages'. However, Woolas's claim that 'if you have a child with your cousin the likelihood is there'll be a genetic problem' has now been rebuked by a leading geneticist. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, said that 'in general it is mortality or disability going up by almost twice' - a rise from around 3 per cent of births in the general population to around 6 per cent of consanguineous births. So whilst it may be an issue where more awareness and open discussion are needed, it is also important to consider individual cases with respect to their familial history of genetic disorders. In a statement issued last week, the Department of Health described this as the 'key factor in understanding a family's risk'. They emphasised that Woolas had spoken independently of the Government, but added: 'We need to ensure that ethnic minority communities know how to access [specialised genetics] services and the advice and support they can offer'.
Woolas has been accused of verging on Islamophobia by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, although he stressed that this was a cultural not a religious issue. Professor Jones pointed out that consanguinity had been, and still is, a common practice in certain European populations.