The dangers of marriage between first cousins are to be highlighted by a leading professor, with a warning that their children are at risk of genetic defects.
Baroness Deech, a family law professor and crossbencher, will call next week for a “vigorous” public campaign to deter the practice, which is prevalent in Muslim and immigrant communities and on the rise. She will reignite a debate started five years ago when Ann Cryer, MP for Keighley, drew attention to the number of disabled babies being born in the town and called for cousin marriage to be stopped.
Fifty-five per cent of British Pakistanis are married to first cousins and in Bradford the figure is 75 per cent. British Pakistanis represent 3 per cent of all births in Britain but one third of children with recessive disorders.
Lady Deech will also warn that marriage between first cousins can be a barrier to the integration of minority communities. In a lecture she will call for testing for genetic defects where such marriages are arranged and the keeping of a register of people who carry genetic diseases, so that two carriers are not introduced. “Some variant of this could be possible in cities such as Bradford with a high density of immigrant population,” she will say.
Lady Deech, who chaired the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for eight years, will also suggest that married first cousins use invitro fertilisation so that embryos can be tested for recessive diseases.
“Human rights and religious and cultural practices are respected by not banning cousin marriage,” she will argue. “But those involved must be made aware of the consequences.” Her comments will be made at the Museum of London in the last of a series of family law lectures that she has given under the auspices of Gresham College. Other topics have included marriage, divorce law, cohabitation and gay partnerships; last week she argued that children do better in two-parent families of different genders.
“The local estimate was that 75 per cent of Bradford disabled children had cousin parents and the rate of cousin marriage in the UK Pakistani community is increasing,” Lady Deech will say.
In Birmingham, another city with a substantial immigrant community, Lady Deech notes that 10 per cent of the children of first cousins die in infancy or have a disability.
She will note that the practice has always been associated with immigrants and the poor and is “at odds with freedom of choice, romantic love and integration”. But factors linked to cousin marriage in the British immigrant community are working against what she calls its “otherwise inevitable decline”.
One is finance: such marriages can be arranged to settle debts. Another is financial support of relatives abroad. A third is that it provides a “ready-made framework of supportive family members for a new immigrant spouse”; and a fourth is that it enables relatives to migrate to Britain as a fiancé or spouse.
In the Middle East, it is also said to underpin clan loyalty and to accompany nepotism, she argues.
But cousin marriage can be a barrier to integration of immigrant communities and “arguably to democracy as we know it abroad”. It also carries genetic problems that can be “replicated generation after generation, with accumulated suffering in an extended family”. But Lady Deech does not favour a ban on first-cousin marriages such as one that exists in US states.
“The State would have to show that it had compelling reasons to limit the right to marry and that the means are related to the goal.” But there are compelling arguments to act on health grounds. Personal health is the “fetish of the late 20th century” and people are targeted over food safety, drink, smoking, alcohol and exercise.
Yet there are cultural differences or ignorance about disabled children, she says. Women may be blamed in some minority cultures for being childless or having disabled children; while the “Muslim view . . . is that it is a consequence of Allah’s will, and they may therefore approach it with fatalism”.
Lady Deech calls for measures short of a ban to prevent the genetic problems arising from cousin marriage.
She says: “There is no reason, one could argue, why there should not be a campaign to highlight the risks and the preventative measures, every bit as vigorous as those centring on smoking, obesity and Aids.” While there was reluctance to “target or upset Muslims over cousin-marriage issues” the practice was not mandated by religion, only permitted, so it is not at heart a religious issue, she argues.
A campaign of education needs to start in schools so they understand about genetics and what it means to carry a mutant gene, Lady Deech says.
“Where marriages are arranged, it is possible to test for carrier status and record the results, without stigmatising individuals.” In the Orthodox Jewish community young people are screened for Tay-Sachs disease, a recessive genetic disorder that prevents mental and physical development, but not given the result. When a match is proposed, a register is checked to ensure two young people who are carriers are not introduced. “Some variant of this could be possible in cities such as Bradford, with a high density of immigrant population”, she argues. Finally she suggests in-vitro embryo testing: ethical objections about this being a slippery slope to eugenics are met by current guidelines under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, she says.
Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, welcomed Lady Deech’s comments. He said that cousin marriage was popular even though Islamic teaching encouraged wedlock outside the immediate family.
“Certainly education has an important role to play in this area. There are clear dangers in marrying a close relative, which need to be better understood. Professor Deech’s recommendation appear to be sensible,” he said.
Mrs Cryer said: “It is essential that we discuss this issue. We have been told to be careful, as discussing it could cause deep offence. Blow that, it does not matter. If people wish to be offended, they will be offended.”