Is Cousin Marriage Incest?
If there were ever mixed news on the same-sex marriage front, there was yesterday: while North Carolina hasn’t legalized same-sex marriage, President Obama has come out in favor it.
While the most recent news stories are far from the only ones to have spawned the trend, comparing same-sex marriage to cousin marriage seems to be a common thing to do. Usually, the post is accompanied by commentary or leads to comments along the lines of “so marrying family members of the opposite sex and making mutated babies is cool, but marrying someone of the same sex isn’t?”
People have been linking to maps like this on social networking sites and post image memes like the one below.
The idea is that it is unfair that what is deemed “incest” is allowed by the state but that same-sex relationships are not allowed to be recognized in that same way. While many (including me) would agree with that sentiment, are there any social, scientific, or ethical reasons to oppose cousin marriage?
The social taboo against cousin marriage is a relatively new one. In the United States, the taboo seems to have originated in highly unscientific studies that relied to eugenicist ideas. Either way, in the Victorian era and before, Europeans and Americans married their cousins with impunity. In many other cultures worldwide, people marry their cousins without any issues; the practice is not considered bizarre, taboo, or disgusting — in other words, not incest, since that word is defined by social custom. Currently, opposition to and disgust towards cousin marriage seems to be based at least somewhat on classism (i.e. “hicks” and “hillbillies” do it) and xenophobia (i.e. those people do it).
Scientifically speaking, the risks of cousin marriage are related to any children that might be produced as a result of the union. As can be inferred by how common cousin marriage used to be in Europe and the United States and is still in other parts of the world, the children of cousins are not all doomed to be drooling inbreds. In fact, the increased risk of birth defects in the children of cousins is incredibly slight. Many states only allow cousin marriage if there is no possibility of the production of children anyway.
With the social prohibition on cousin marriage being as arbitrary as it is and the science against the idea of cousin marriage being harmful, the only issue that remains is the ethics of it. Subjectivity reigns here, to some extent. Personally, I side with my grandmother.
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up Muslim. According to Islamic law as well as Indian and Pakistani custom, cousins are fair marriage game. Therefore, by the age of puberty, I was required to give up hugging my male cousins and going in front of them with my head uncovered. Regardless of the Islamic and Indian stance, however, I never was expected or encouraged to marry any of them, a legacy courtesy of my mother’s mother. She declined all offers of marriage for any of her daughters that came from her relatives, noting that filial ties could become strained or even severed due to marital discord between two married cousins. That reasoning, to me, makes the most sense of any argument against relatives becoming sexually and/or romantically involved: even if they have no children or those children face little risk, families should be a safe space, not one fraught with the sorts of tension that tend to originate in romantic and/or sexual connections.
A similar argument is used by the main character of Arrested Development when talking to his son about his attraction to his cousin, which included a fake wedding, the one depicted at the beginning of this post.
Such reasoning is, of course, quite relative.