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Here we go again: misinformation and confusion on consanguineous marriage continues

6 June 2011
By Professor Alan Bittles
Centre for Comparative Genomics, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia
Appeared in BioNews 610
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 (1), a highly entertaining event it seems to have been.

Several quotations from Professor Jones' lecture immediately caught my eye, starting with: 'Royal families are the equivalent of fruit flies because they do all the sexual experiments you can think of and there are some examples of inbreeding'. Never having been privy to any Royal bedchamber and with a lamentable lack of practical experience in Drosophila genetics, I cannot comment on the veracity or otherwise of this claim, which does, however, seem to smack of some plebeian envy.

The further statement that, 'In Northern Ireland lots of people share the same surname which suggests a high level of inbreeding' is at best questionable - although here I may be revealing some personal sensitivity due to my Northern Irish origins. But, really, if one had to choose a land in which a few surnames encompass a majority of the population, surely it would be Wales? The land of Professor Jones' birth, and where most of the common surnames characteristically end in an 's' - as in Jones, Evans, Williams, Hopkins, James, Thomas, etc. Perhaps this hint of a close-knit genetic past is what Professor Jones had in mind in his comment: 'We are all more incestuous than we realise'?

So far so comical, but it was when Professor Jones entered into the debate on consanguineous marriage, especially as it impacted on the UK Muslim population and with Bradford singled out for particular mention, that matters began to get much more serious. Although all too well aware that phrases can be, and often are, taken out of context by sub-editors and headline writers, a number of the statements ascribed to Professor Jones were at best unhelpful, while others were both patently wrong and could very easily be construed as overly provocative.

There is no doubt that couples who are close biological relatives are at a higher average risk of giving birth to a child who has inherited a genetic disorder that otherwise is very rare in the general population. But in a large majority of families where the parents are first cousins this added risk is small, and comparable to other non-genetic risk factors, such as maternal alcohol ingestion during pregnancy. Therefore to approach this highly sensitive subject via the statement that, 'Bradford is very inbred. There is a huge amount of cousins marrying each other there', is troublesome. The very concept of an 'inbred' city is curious indeed.

It is, however, the claim, 'It is common in the Islamic world to marry your brother's daughter, which is actually closer than marrying your cousin', that specifically jars and alarms. In fact, contrary to Professor Jones' unqualified assertion, uncle-niece marriage is specifically prohibited by the Holy Quran. So the idea that Muslims worldwide commonly contract this form of marriage is both incorrect and could well be interpreted by some as insulting.

I am in no doubt whatsoever that no such offence was intended by Professor Jones. But given the quite recent and widely publicised commentaries by other figures in the public eye on the desirability or otherwise of consanguineous marriage, also with little or no accompanying factual information, it is not surprising that some UK communities feel themselves to be significantly misrepresented.

In a topic such as consanguineous marriage, where genetics, social and cultural customs, and religious beliefs interact, and frequently clash, it is of the utmost importance that the credibility of information provided by professional commentators, scientific or otherwise, is beyond doubt. Failure to ensure this is a serious breach of public trust, whatever the message and whomsoever the target audience. Given the increasingly multi-ethnic nature of present-day UK society, an appropriately sensitive understanding of the many complex issues involved in consanguineous marriage is urgently required.

1) Hay Festival 2011: Professor risks political storm over Muslim 'inbreeding’
The Telegraph |  29 May 2011
8 July 2013 - by Dr Victoria Burchell 
Marriage between first cousins could double the risk of any offspring having a birth defect, researchers say...
31 January 2011 - by Nishat Hyder 
The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) has published a position paper on intrafamilial medically assisted reproduction (IMAR) concluding that the practice is 'morally acceptable' in some circumstances....
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...
31 August 2010 - by Professor Sandy Raeburn 
Why am I criticising a campaign to reduce the incidence of severe autosomal recessive diseases? After all, I spent five years of my 40-year clinical career in medical genetics living in Oman - a Muslim country where over 50 per cent of marriages are consanguineous? Let's dig deeper!...
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...
9 June 2008 - by Ailsa Stevens 
Over a billion people worldwide live in regions where 20-50 per cent of marriages are consanguineous, and first-cousin unions are especially popular. Discussion of this phenomenon is confused by the fact that its causes are social and economic, while its outcomes tend to be measured in terms of child...
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