Proposed bill would legalize first-cousin marriages

by Libby George

Family reunions in Minnesota could become very different events if recently introduced legislation sees its way into law.

A bill introduced in the state House last Thursday by Reps. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, and Cy Thao, DFL-St. Paul, would legalize marriages between first cousins in Minnesota.

Kahn said she got the idea for the legislation from a report by the Journal of Genetic Counseling released in April 2002, which said the risks associated with marriage between cousins was not as great as previously believed.

“I heard the story on (National Public Radio), and I know there were some problems with immigrant groups Ö so I said we should just get rid of it,” Kahn said. “I kind of thought it was such an obvious thing to do.”

The study – based on a review of six major studies conducted between 1965 and August 2000 involving thousands of births – concluded that although children born to first cousins are somewhat more likely to have birth defects or genetic diseases, the number of defects and diseases is nowhere near as high as people once thought.

According to the report, children born to parents who are not first cousins face a 3 percent to 4 percent risk of developing genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, and children born to first cousins have an additional 1.7 to 2.8 percentage points to that risk.

“This has come up as a problem in immigration,” Kahn said. “Normally, when the spouse of a sibling applies for citizenship, it is not a problem, but people who are married to cousins cannot gain citizenship.”

She added that according to House research this was an issue in the Somali and Hmong communities.

“In Somali culture it doesn’t happen that often, but you can do it legally,” said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. “It’s something that might happen in Muslim marriages, but there’s a clan system in Somalia that’s divided by relatives, and you usually go outside the clan to marry.”

He said, however, that people in the Somali community would be interested in the passage of the legislation “only, in a sense, for the reason if cousins want to marry, they can.”

Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, said in Hmong culture, marriage between cousins is ideal.

“It serves to reconnect the siblings and really unifies a family,” she said.

Thao, the bill’s co-author, said the law prohibiting first-cousin marriage in Minnesota could be detrimental to immigrants from all areas because no other countries prohibit it. Marriage between first cousins is now legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

“If there’s no scientific reason, there is no reason for the law,” Thao said.

Susan Berry, professor of pediatrics and genetic cell biology and development at the University, said regardless of legislation, education is the most important thing for couples who are first cousins or related in any way.

“Legislation or not, the genetic risks do not change because we change the law,” Berry said. “We all have abnormal genes, but normally you get a backup copy from the other parent Ö . The fear is that with closely related parents, the child will get two abnormal genes.”

She added that in Minnesota it is now legal to marry second cousins, which also presents risks.

“People who share a common ancestor have higher risks for genetic diseases,” Berry said. “If you’re first cousins, you have a common ancestor. If you are second cousins, you have a common ancestor, but it’s just a further step.”

Mary Ahrens, a Fairview-University Medical Center genetic counselor, said the center has often seen cases where couples simply travel to states nearby, such as South Dakota, where first-cousin marriage is permitted.

“We’ve seen a couple patients through the years where (the law) has been an issue, and they just move to other states,” she said.

Berry said the risks are not as important now that other reproductive technologies are evolving.

“If the couple chooses to get married, there would be ways a genetic counselor could help them,” she said.

Berry said things such as pre-natal diagnosis, the ability to select which embryo is used and artificial insemination, which lowers the risk of passing on genetic diseases, all lower risks for the children of closely related couples.

Libby George covers national politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]