First cousin Marriage -- an expert opinion...
Posted by The Mysterious H.C. on October 20, 1997 at 19:22:07:
Found this in a recent Usenet posting --
Date: Sun, 19 Oct 1997 14:42:29 -0400
From: Edw & Joan Kane
Subject: Re: Cousin Marriages: Legal? Common?
In article <email@example.com>, firstname.lastname@example.org writes:
- Am I right about the law? Is, in fact, a first cousin marriage illegal in most or all of the countries growing out of the English legal tradition? (In the US, of course, it's covered by state law.)
- Were first cousin marriages, in fact, commonplace among early settlers in New England? Virginia? Florida? Wherever? What about various parts of Canada? Were there regional or religious variations?
A recent book, Forbidden Relatives : The American Myth of Cousin Marriage, by anthropologist Martin Ottenheimer, addresses the subject of cousin marriage, especially in the context of laws in the USA. Another book, The Mountain of Names, by Alex Shoumatoff, also covers this topic. The following information is derived from both of these authors; part of it was published in a letter about 3 years ago. As to negative social implications of marriage: Queen Victoria married her first cousin, as did Charles Darwin, and many others. I have heard of a Web site devoted to current practice of this topic. My own interest is derived from encounters in genealogy.
For centuries the law of the Medieval Church prohibited first cousin marriage without prior dispensation. It is unclear why this law was started, but it gradually grew in scope, and it was not long before second cousin and third cousin marriages also were forbidden. In 1059, Pope Nicholas II allegedly issued a law forbidding marriage between relatives as closely related as sixth cousins (!!!!!). Some historians say that these prohibitions were motivated by a desire to prevent members of wealthy families from marrying close relatives solely as a means of keeping wealth in the family line, and there are, of course, better reasons for marrying. Since persons could seek and easily obtain dispensations from this law, the law seldom worked as intended. Other historians say that the Church was opposed to close kinship ties in general, and not just cousin marriage itself, since kinship represented a rival source of power, and individualism suited the Church better than the close kinship ties that cousin marriages would have produced. Since non-Medieval church splits have been known to follow family lines, there may be some truth to this. That the prohibition of marriage between sixth cousins is quite extreme can be seen from just one example: though I don't believe they ever acknowledged it, Presidents Nixon and Carter were sixth cousins, sharing common ancestors in a Quaker farming couple named Morris who lived near colonial Philadelphia. Under this extreme law, they, their siblings, and close relatives were considered too closely related for marriage!
After the Protestant Reformation in the 1500's, various Protestant churches naturally turned away from Catholic Church law on prohibited degrees of marriage, and turned to the Bible, particularly Leviticus, as a guide for marriage law. While Leviticus prohibits marriage between many affinal or "marriage" relationships (such as prohibiting a widower from marrying his dead wife's sister), and some consanguinal or "blood" relationships (such as prohibiting a man from marrying his niece), it does not include any prohibition against first cousin marriage. Leviticus became the guide for the canon law of many churches, and later it became the guide for the civil law of many countries as well. Before the 1850's, almost all European countries and most existing American states passed laws on marriage that closely reflected the very words of Leviticus. First cousin marriage in the 1800's was not uncommon: Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Charles Darwin married his first cousin, etc. There are many other examples of first cousin marriage from this time, including my great-great grandmother, who married her first cousin after her first husband, my great-great grandfather, had died.
Martin Ottenheimer, writing an article entitled "Lewis Henry Morgan and the Prohibition of Cousin Marriage in the United States" in the third 1990 issue of Journal of Family History, describes how after about 1850 there developed a great prejudice against first cousin marriage in American society. Prior to 1850 first cousin marriage was not uncommon, and few states prohibited it, but after 1850 the incidence of first cousin marriage in the United States gradually diminished and many states commenced to make laws against it. To many Americans, marriage among cousins became equivalent with vulgar and uncivilized behavior. Today, 30 states prohibit marriage between first cousins, and one state (North Carolina) prohibits marriage between double first cousins (but not single first cousins), while 19 have no laws against first cousin marriage at all. In Europe, by contrast, not a single country prohibits first cousin marriage. What caused the United States to change its attitude and laws?
It is most interesting that the same states that altered their laws to prohibit first cousin marriages generally dropped from these new laws the Biblical prohibitions of marriage between affinal relatives (relatives through marriage). States were turning away from the Bible as a source of law, and turning to beliefs and attitudes formed by developing notions of biology, evolution, and public health. As society became more secular, so too did the law. Ottenheimer writes how the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, himself married to a first cousin, experienced personal and family tragedy, and consequently spoke out vehemently, if irrationally, against first cousin marriage. He also relates how the Bemiss report to the American Medical Association in 1858 was instrumental in its effect on the existing laws. This report stressed that marriage between cousins "does incontestably lead ... to the physical and mental depravation of the offspring." This report is probably a good summary of the prevailing modern attitude toward cousin marriage, and probably influenced greatly the zeal to change the laws to prohibit first cousin marriage. The report is, however, wrong; later investigation revealed inadequate research methods in the Bemiss report, and a later, more careful analysis of the same data arrived at very different conclusions. But it was too late; the later studies were not received nor believed by the population at large.
Scientists and physicians do caution that the health of society at large can be better served by marriage between people who are not very closely related. Alex Shoumatoff, in his book The Mountain of Names: A History of the Human Family, writes in the sixth chapter "The Kinship of Mankind", that according to geneticist Francisco Ayala, "the incidence of defective newborn children is about twice as high when the parents are first cousins as when the parents are unrelated." Implied in that statement is that not only cousin marriages, but marriages between people who are apparently unrelated can and do result in genetic health problems for their children, though the chance is small; indeed, marriages between first cousins generally have only twice that small chance of producing unhealthy offspring. Shoumatoff relates how geneticist Bob Williamson suggests that each "normal" person may carry "twenty or so potentially lethal recessive genes, from whose lethality we are protected by also carrying a healthy, dominant version of the same gene." Marriage between close cousins definitely increases the chance that one of these recessive genes will pair up with itself; that is, that two genes, identical but passed down through different family lines from a single common ancestor, may double up and produce the unhealthy trait in a child of close cousins. First cousins, who may hold about 1/8 of their genes in common, may be somewhat concerned about the possibility of a harmful recessive gene in their common ancestry, particularly if they know that one exists; second cousins, who may hold about 1/32 of their genes in common, probably have no more risk of producing unhealthy offspring from a dangerous recessive gene than apparently unrelated people, but their concern should be greater if they are related through multiple close family lines; third cousins, who may hold 1/128 of their genes in common, have a risk that approaches that of people who are apparently unrelated. Consideration before marriage of possible genetic consequences is wise, especially for people who know of unhealthy recessive genes in their family line; this may include cousins, but it also includes the very many who are otherwise apparently unrelated.
I mentioned "apparently unrelated" because it is obvious that all humanity is somehow related. The question is one of degree. Guy Murchie, in his book The Seven Mysteries of Life, tells how geneticists such as J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Sir Julian Huxley accept the notion that no human being can be less closely related to any other human than approximately fiftiethth cousin, though most of us are a whole lot closer. The mathematics is engaging: the family trees of all of us meet and merge into one gigantic family tree that includes all humanity within only 50 generations; we are all cousins, now. But this is a whole new topic than the question at hand.
In review: In the late 1800's, many states in the U.S. dropped the Biblical prohibitions against marriage between affinal relatives (relatives by marriage) and adopted prohibitions against first cousin marriage in their stead; they justified the change with developing notions of biology, evolution, and public health. Greater than the legal change was a total change in attitudes toward the subject of first cousin marriage. Health reports were wildly exaggerated and wildly accepted, and while there is some medical or genetic basis for concern about the marriage of very close cousins, it is not to the degree that would justify the great prejudice against cousin marriage that is held by the average person in the U.S. today.
A note: the states (in the USA) which currently prohibit first cousin marriage are: AZ, AR, DE, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, SD, UT, WA, WV, WI, AND WY. In addition, NC prohibits marriage between double first cousins, persons who are first cousins on both the father's and the mother's side, but not between single first cousins. No European country, to my knowledge, prohibits first cousin marriage, though some churches or cultural groups within those countries may do so. I don't know the status of Canadian or provincial law on the subject. One more note: In January of 1887 my great-great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Sheets Herman, and her first cousin and beau, William H. Miller, both of Philadelphia, PA, took a ferry across the Delaware River to the city of Camden, NJ, in which state they could legally become married. They returned to Philadelphia where they lived, worked, and raised five children, besides Mary's two children still living from her first marriage. That marriage was recognized as legal in PA, even if it was not legal to become so married in that state. They and their children lived well.
Hope this helps.
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Ed Kane e j k a n e < at > redrose < dot > n e t
40*01'20"N 76*07'53"W Lancaster County, PA, USA
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