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Leading bioethicist to reignite debate on cousin marriages

22 March 2010
Appeared in BioNews 550

A leading bioethicist is to reignite the debate on the genetic risks of marriage between first cousins. Baroness Ruth Deech, a reproductive law professor and crossbench peer, is to call for a 'vigorous' public campaign to deter the practice, according to a report in The Times. Baroness Deech will be giving a free public lecture titled 'Cousin Marriage' at the Museum of London on Tuesday 22 March during which, The Times reports, she will say the children of first cousins have a raised risk of inherited disabilities and disease.

'The local estimate was that 75 per cent of Bradford disabled children had cousin parents and the rate of cousin marriage in the UK Pakistani community is increasing', Baroness Deech will say. The Times reports that fifty-five per cent of British Pakistanis are married to first cousins and, in Bradford, the figure rises to 75 per cent. One-third of children with recessive disorders are British Pakistanis, but they only account for three per cent of UK births.

Baroness Deech is due to call for married first cousins to use IVF so their embryos can be tested for genetic defects, according to The Times. Other recommendations will include a campaign to deter cousin marriage. 'There is no reason, one could argue, why there should not be a campaign to highlight the risks and the preventive measures, every bit as vigorous as those centering on smoking, obesity and Aids', she will say.

This could include genetics education, such as what it means to carry a mutant gene. According to The Times, Baroness Deech will also suggest a genetic screening programme similar to that used in the Orthodox Jewish community to tackle the recessive genetic disorder Tay-Sachs disease. 'Where marriages are arranged, it is possible to test for carrier status and record the results, without stigmatising individuals', she will say. The Times explains that, when a match is proposed in the Orthodox Jewish community, a registry is checked to ensure it is not between two carriers of Tay-Sachs. 'Some variant of this could be possible in cities such as Bradford, with a high density of immigrant population', Baroness Deech will say.

In an associated Times Analysis piece, legal editor Frances Gibb discusses famous people who have married their first cousins, including Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Queen Victoria. She quotes Baroness Deech as saying first cousin marriages will lead to: 'twice as many sick children (four per cent) as in others who are not related'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Bioethicist warns of first-cousin unions
UPI.com |  20 March 2010
Call to discourage first-cousin marriages
Scotland on Sunday |  21 March 2010
Cousin Marriage
Gresham College |  22 March 2010
Darwin's theory of evolution included marriage to his first cousin
Times Online |  20 March 2010
'Marrying my cousin means I don't have to deal with a mother-in-law'
TimesOnline |  20 March 2010
Rise in marriages between cousins 'is putting children's health at risk'
The Times |  20 March 2010
Rise in marriages between cousins 'putting children at risk of birth defects', warns Baroness
Daily Mail |  20 March 2010
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