Cousins: A New Theory of Relativity

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Yes we're all cousins,
That's what I believe,
Because we're children
of Adam and Eve...
But we're kissin' cousins
'n that'll make it all right.
--Elvis Presley song, 1964

It began with some cousin cuisine. Paul Gonzalez had taken his cousin Donna on a long trek through a remote part of Colombia. They had missed the day's meals and had only a jar of pickled vegetables and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. So they repaired to hammocks strung up under the moonlight--and began a love story that has lasted 14 years and produced two children.

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"I was shocked that I had fallen in love with my first cousin and surprised that this miracle had fallen on me," says Paul. "My only real concern was the medical issue."

Paul, a graduate student in New York City, and Donna, a financial adviser, are just two in a long, flourishing line of kissin' first cousins. Charles Darwin wed his cousin Emma and spawned 10 children, including four brilliant scientists. Albert Einstein's second wife Elsa was his first cousin. Queen Victoria said "I do" to hers. So have millions worldwide. In parts of Saudi Arabia, 39% of all marriages are between first cousins.

In the U.S., though, the practice bears a stigma of inbreeding just this side of incest. The taboo is not only social (the Jerry Lee Lewis syndrome) but legislative: 24 states ban the marriage of first cousins; five others allow it only if the couple is unable to bear children. A major reason for this ban is the belief that kids of first cousins are tragically susceptible to serious congenital illnesses.

That view may have to change. A comprehensive study published last week in the Journal of Genetic Counseling indicates such children run an only slightly higher risk of significant genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis or congenital heart defects--about two percentage points above the average 3% to 4%. Says the study's lead author, Robin Bennett, president-elect of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, which funded the study: "Aside from a thorough medical family history, there is no need to offer any genetic testing on the basis of consanguinity alone."

Publication of the study will do more than tweak public awareness; it will enlighten doctors who have urged cousin couples not to have children. "Just this week," says Bennett, "I saw a 23-year-old woman who had had a tubal ligation because her parents were cousins and her doctor told her she shouldn't have children." The study cites the case of "Amy," who had been in a relationship with her cousin for two years when, in 1996, she became pregnant. Her doctor suggested an abortion, and after a fruitless search for more information, she had the procedure. This week Amy wrote to the website that she planned to get many copies of the report--"one that I will personally deliver to my ex-gynecologist."

The American proscription against cousin marriages grew in the 19th century as wilderness settlers tried to distinguish themselves from the "savage" Indians, says Martin Ottenheimer, author of the book Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage. "The truth is that Europeans were marrying their cousins and Native Americans were not."

And doesn't God have stern words on the subject? Christie Smith, 37, a Nevada writer, says she felt guilty when she fell in love with her first cousin's son Mark. "I was trying so hard to convince myself not to have these feelings," she recalls, "that I went to the Bible looking for confirmation that it was wrong. And what I found was the exact opposite: support for cousin marriages." The patriarch Jacob married two of his first cousins, Rachel and Leah; Isaac and Rebekah were first cousins once removed. (The Roman Catholic Church has opposed cousin marriages for more than a millennium but gives dispensation to couples considered worthy.) Smith married Mark in 1999; this year she founded a group called cuddle--Cousins United to Defeat Discriminating Laws through Education.

As for Paul and Donna Gonzalez, they are doing fine. Their son, 9, and daughter, 8, are well adjusted and academically gifted. Still, the parents are protective of their family secret. (They declined to have their real names used for this story.) "When our kids started school here," says Donna, "I told them, 'You don't have to hide this from anyone. But you don't need to go advertising it.'"

The medical ban is lifted; the social stain may take longer to disappear.