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"A lot of arranged marriages are with first cousins, and that produces lots of genetic problems in terms of disability [in children]," Mr Woolas said.
A family affair: Cousins who tied the knot Jerry Lee Lewis The rock 'n 'roll star infamously married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed, 10 years his junior, in 1957.Today, only six states allow marriage between first cousins, but bans on marrying one’s cousin only just started popping up in the last century. Marriage between cousins is restricted or regulated in the United States to help prevent birth defects and genetic disorders in children.Birth defects are more common among children born to members of the same family.The rate of birth defects among children born to first cousins is 4 to 7 percent compared with 3 to 4 percent among the general population.The risk of birth defects rapidly diminishes the more distantly related two people are, and the risk is no longer significant among children born to parents who are second cousins.
The risk of giving birth to babies with genetic defects as a result of marriages between first cousins is no greater than that run by women over 40 who become pregnant, according to two scientists who call for the taboo on first-cousin families to be lifted.
Women in their forties are not made to feel guilty about having babies and the same should apply to cousins who want to marry, said Professor Diane Paul of the University of Massachusetts in Boston and Professor Hamish Spencer of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Although first-cousin marriages are legal in Britain, there have been calls to ban the practice because of reports that it has resulted in a higher-than-average incidence of birth defects in certain immigrant communities where it is common and culturally acceptable.
However, Professors Paul and Spencer said that the risk of congenital defects is about 2 per cent higher than average for babies born to first-cousin marriages – with the infant mortality about 4.4 per cent higher – which is on a par with the risk to babies born to women over 40.
"Women over the age of 40 have a similar risk of having children with birth defects and no one is suggesting they should be prevented from reproducing," said Professor Spencer, whose co-authored study is published in the online journal Public Library of Science.
First-cousin marriages were once quite common in Europe, especially among the elite – Charles Darwin married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood – but that changed in the late 19th-century as people, especially women, became more socially mobile and the risks became more evident.