In February,British environment minister Phil Woolas sparked a major row in the United Kingdom when he attributed the high rate of birth defects in the Pakistani community to the practice of marriages between first cousins. Although a Muslim activist group demanded that Woolas be fired, he was instead promoted in October to the racially sensitive post of immigration minister. Most of his constituents would surely have shared Woolas' view that the risk to offspring from first-cousin marriage is unacceptably high—as Cousin in law dating minors many Americans.
Indeed, in the United States, similar assumptions about the high level of genetic risk associated with cousin marriage are reflected in the 31 state laws that either bar the practice outright or permit it only where the couple obtains genetic counseling, is beyond reproductive age, or if one partner is sterile. When and why did such laws become popular, and is the sentiment that informs them grounded in scientific fact?
US prohibitions on cousin marriage date to the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Subsequently, the rate of increase in the number of laws was nearly constant until the mids; only KentuckyMaineand Texas have since banned cousins from marrying. Several other efforts ultimately failed when bills were either vetoed by a governor or passed by only one house of a legislature; e. The accompanying map Figure 1 illustrates both the extent and the progress of legislation.
It demonstrates that western states are disproportionately represented, reflecting the fact that either as territories or newly admitted states, they were writing their marriage codes from scratch and hence prompted to explicitly confront the issue.
For the same reason, these states tended to be the first to prohibit cousin Cousin in law dating minors. Different colors reflect differences in the timing of passage of the laws. Colorado is shaded because its law was repealed. White states never had such bans. Perhaps surprisingly, these bans are not attributable to the rise of eugenics.
Popular assumptions about hereditary risk and an associated need to control reproduction were widespread before the emergence of an organized eugenics movement around the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, most prominent American eugenists were, at best, lukewarm about the laws, which they thought both indiscriminate in their effects and difficult to enforce [ 2 ]. In the view of many eugenists, sterilization of the unfit would be a far more effective means of improving the race. Nonetheless, in both the US and Europe, the frequency of first-cousin marriage—a practice that had often been favored, especially by elites—sharply declined during the second half of the 19th century [ 3 ].
The reasons are both complex and contested, but likely include improved transportation and communication, which increased the range of marriage partners; a decline in family size, which limited the number of marriageable cousins; and greater female mobility and autonomy [ 45 ].
The fact that no European country barred cousins from marrying, while many US states did and still do, has often been interpreted as "Cousin in law dating minors" of a special American animosity toward the practice [ 6 ].
But this explanation ignores a number of factors, including the ease with which a handful of highly motivated activists—or even one individual—can be effective in the decentralized American system, especially when feelings do not run high on the other side of an issue. The recent Texas experience, where a state representative quietly tacked an amendment barring first-cousin marriage onto a child protection bill, is a case in point.