Monday, 23 August 2010

First cousin marriages

There was another deeply disturbing programme on TV last night (Dispatches: When Cousins Marry, Channel 4, 23rd. August, 8pm).

Doctors have known for many years that when first cousins marry they share the same grandparents and this greatly increases the risk that their children will develop one or more of various genetic diseases due to the inheritance of two recessive genes for that disease. This is not a hypothesis, it's a proven fact, on a par with the idea that water tends to run downhill, except that we understand the causative mechanism of recessive genetic disease much better, since gravity remains a mystery.

More than half of British Pakistanis marry their first cousins, and their children thus have a greatly increased incidence of rare genetic diseases. Their children account for 30% of all such cases in Britain, and children of first cousin marriages have three times the rate of learning disabilities seen in other British children. Having personally witnessed many such cases at medical meetings I can testify that some of these tragedies are heart-wrenching in the terrible physical and mental problems they produce.

Yet many Pakistani parents and their religious leaders continue to be in denial about it, and seem to believe that any criticism of the practice is an insult to their culture and religion. The presenter Tazeen Ahmad interviewed such a married couple, three of whose six children had degenerative diseases. They frankly refused to believe it was a genetic problem, but felt it must the fault of the doctors and it was a ' test from God'.

When she met Pakistani community leaders Tazeen pointed out (in vain) that hostility to first cousin marriages was nothing to do with skin colour or race or ethnic minorities or religion, but was simply to do with trying to prevent suffering due to horrible and largely preventible diseases. She could have made the additional point that inherited diseases due to inbreeding also used to occur in the European aristocracy before they stopped marrying their near relatives. Queen Victoria, for example, passed the recessive gene for haemophilia to the royal families of Spain, Germany and Russia.

It seems very unlikely that education will make any impression on the Pakistani community. Tazeen might as well have talked to the proverbial brick wall.

Ye Gods! Little Green Chickens! Mary, Mary Quite Contrary! or whatever other blasphemous profanity you wish to use, why cannot our lily-livered politicians pluck up the courage to do some good in the world by passing a law against first cousin marriages?

The Health and Safety people already have enough laws against almost everything else.

Please feel free to bring this Post to the attention of your local MP.


  1. I read about this in the Sunday paper. I think in Scotland it is still quite frowned upon to take up with your cousin. My parents told me it was illegal - but they told me a load of tosh about a lot of things!

    Ali x

  2. John - I tagged you on my blog. Feel free to ignore ;-)

    Ali x

  3. It was very prevalent in many rural communities in the North of England until fairly recently. I have a photograph of the lifeboat crew in Ellington taken in the late 19th century entitled "Every man a Brown", my great grandfather Adam Brown included.
    Over here in the States, it is still common practice. There are a lot of one eyed banjo players in them thar woods.
    You know your a red neck when you have been married 5 times and you still have the same inlaws.