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Controversy continues over UK minister's stance on birth defects and inbreeding

18 February 2008
Appeared in BioNews 445

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.

Backing for minister over first-cousin marriage comments
The Guardian |  11 February 2008
Minister warns of 'inbred' Muslims
The Sunday Times |  10 February 2008
Minister warns over in-breeding in Asians
The Telegraph |  11 February 2008
No 10 steps back from cousins row
BBC News Online |  11 February 2008
6 June 2011 - by Professor Alan Bittles 
Not having been in the audience for Professor Steve Jones' John Maddox Lecture at the Hay Festival 2011 - distance and the lack of an invitation being my excuses - I have had to rely on reports on its content in the press. And according to the testament of Jonathan Wynne-Jones, religious affairs correspondent of the Telegraph, a highly entertaining event it seems to have been...
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 Dr Vivienne Raper 
A leading bioethics professor and crossbench peer is to reignite the debate on the genetic risks of marriage between first cousins...
11 February 2008 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
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...
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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