Incest and Delayed Motherhood

By William Saletan

… As societies embrace privacy, the acceptable basis for restricting sexual behavior has been reduced to harm. And the evidence that these practices are harmful is weak.

In the case of incest, I looked at the scientific objection — inbreeding — at a level one step removed. That is, not in brother-sister coupling, but in cousin marriage. This is an emerging controversy in Britain, thanks largely to immigration from Pakistan, where the practice is common.

First, an estimate of the scale of the practice. "Over a billion people worldwide live in regions where 20%-50% of marriages are consanguineous — that is where the partners are descended from the same ancestor," reports Emma Wilkinson of BBC News. In Britain, Wilkinson cites an unfolding study in Bradford, where half the kids are from Pakistani parents. A pediatrician at the local teaching hospital reports that 70 percent of the first 1,100 Pakistani women recruited for the study are offspring of consanguineous marriages.

… The actual risk-multiplication effect of cousin marriage isn’t clear. A study I cited six years ago concluded that having a child with your first cousin increased the risk of a significant birth defect from about 3-to-4 percent to about 4-to-7 percent. Wilkinson cites data showing that "since 1997 there have been 902 British children born with neurodegenerative conditions and 8% of those were in Bradford which only has 1% of the population."

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