Is it really that bad to marry my cousin? (Transcript)

Monday, November 29, 2021

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Mona Chalabi:
One winter a couple years ago, some of my cousins came to visit me in New York.

I have about 90 cousins, so I’m not going to say anything controversial about favorites, but I’m really close with these two. They’re sisters and I’ll call them Reem and Leila.

I decided to introduce them to my boyfriend at the time, a man I’d been dating for nearly a year. At that point, he hadn’t met anyone in my family. And introducing him first to these cousins, who are pretty close to me in age, seemed like a nice way to kind of ease him into the weirdness of my Arab clan.

We all met up at a dingy, BYOB falafel restaurant in the village. It was one of those places that’s got like six tables, and for some reason, t-shirts. The food there is good but maybe not “buy a t-shirt” good.

So, we ordered our falafel and started making small talk. My boyfriend asked my cousins what they did for work... my cousins asked how my boyfriend and I met. And then, my boyfriend asked them a perfectly normal, innocent small-talk question: “Are you two related to Mona on your mum’s side or your dad’s?”

My cousins looked at each other and then they looked at me. There was a long, awkward pause. And Reem finally said, “Both... We’re related to Mona on both sides.”

That’s because Reem and Leila’s parents are cousins.

Our family is from Iraq, where a lot of people marry their cousins.

But Reem and Leila? They grew up in the U.S., where cousin marriage is way less common... where it’s even shameful. That’s why they hesitated when my boyfriend asked them that seemingly simple question. And that’s why I’m not using their real names... because cousin marriage is REALLY taboo.

Every culture has taboos. They’re these deep-seated beliefs that certain practices are wrong, they’re backwards, they’re abominations.

Taboos will often elicit visceral reactions. It can be as minor as a feeling of “YUCK”, or a taboo can be SO strong and SO widespread that an entire society makes a law about it.

Essentially, taboos are a kind of social control that tell us which behaviors are acceptable and which are unacceptable. Some of these are helpful guidelines for how we should behave, like the taboo against public masturbation. I definitely don’t want to get rid of that one.

But other taboos reinforce hurtful power dynamics... like taboos about who can use which gendered bathroom.

Taboos are a big part of culture, and I find it fascinating that something that is seen as repulsive in one society can be seen as an everyday practice in a different one.

In this episode I’m going to try to understand the ‘ick’ behind certain taboos, whether there is any data behind it, and what all of that says about power.

From the TED Audio Collective, this is Am I Normal? I’m Mona Chalabi, and I'm a data journalist. I use numbers to understand the world. But numbers alone aren’t enough to understand the way that culture and feelings can shape our beliefs.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, I am British. I grew up in a country where cousin marriage is not illegal, but it is taboo. So, I learned to be grossed out by it, even though people in my extended family are married to their cousins.

And so, my feelings about this particular taboo are... complicated. I love Reem and Leila, and their parents. They’re not weird or gross or different from any other happy, loving family.

But at the same time, I feel almost proud of the fact that my parents aren’t cousins, or my grandparents, or anyone else in my direct lineage as far back as I know. But to feel proud of that, to say that to you now, it reinforces the shame that Reem and Leila are made to feel about the fact that their parents are cousins. Why is this taboo so strong in the U.S. but not in Iraq?

Cousin marriage is quite common around the world, especially in countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. About 10% of the world’s familiesare headed by couples who are second cousins or closer. That is more than 750 million people.

If you look at a world map showing where cousin marriage is legal, you will see that it’s allowed throughout most of Europe and the U.K., South America, Australia, parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It’s also legal in Mexico and Canada.

But the map of cousin marriage laws in the U.S. looks like a patchwork quilt. In some states, including New York, California, and Florida, you can marry your first cousin with no restrictions. But in many other states, like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Texas, cousin marriage is banned altogether.

And then there are the states that allow cousin marriage but have some interesting caveats. In a few states, like Arizona, Illinois, and Utah, you can marry your cousin only if you’re sterile or well beyond your childbearing years.

And in one state—Maine—you can marry your cousin only if you’ve undergone genetic counseling.

Why genetic counseling? Why all this focus on offspring? Because if you ask most Americans why cousin marriage is wrong, they’ll say it’s because the couple’s children will have genetic diseases. But is that true?

So, let's follow the data. In terms of what we have...

I reached out to Wendy Chung, a geneticist at Columbia University. She researches genetic disorders—that’s when the DNA changes and shows some signs of anomaly. Dr. Chung also counsels and treats families with genetic disorders.

Wendy Chung:
So genetics to me is extremely logical. It just, it makes sense to me and it's logically having an answer that's a definitive answer. And that's very satisfying, to be able to understand the science and help the individuals, those families that are affected.

Mona Chalabi:
As an embryo grows in the womb, there are all sorts of ways that genes can change and cause disorders. There are congenital anomalies, like when a body part doesn’t grow the way that it’s expected to, you can get things like a cleft lip.

I'd love to like drill into some numbers if possible. So, in order to understand this a little bit better, how does the rate of genetic diseases among the offspring of, say, first cousins compare to the general population?

Wendy Chung:
Just, by the fact that you decide to have children, you run somewhere between a 3 - 4% risk of having a child with one of those major types of problems. A couple that's first cousins, we'll double that risk. You know, instead of 3 - 4%, when we're talking about 6 - 8%, we’re somewhere in that neighborhood.

Mona Chalabi:
6 - 8% is really not that high! And it’s definitely a lower risk than I was expecting. Depending on your circumstances, there are loads of reasons why you might want to marry your cousin.

First, there’s the idea of keeping wealth in your family. And then there’s the familiarity. If you’re going to have an arranged or assisted marriage, it’s probably nicer to marry someone that you’ve spent time with over YEARS of family gatherings, rather than some woman that you’ve had only a couple of awkward meetings with. And there are less surprise evil in-laws when it’s your auntie and uncle that we’re talking about. See, your cousin is the known quantity, the safer bet.

In Europe and North America, cousin marriage used to be pretty common. People like Charles Darwin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Albert Einsteinall married their first cousins. And it’s not just in the past. Queen Elizabeth II married her cousin, Prince Philip. And former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s first wife was his second cousin.

Often, cousin marriage is quite safe: it might even be a pretty good idea. But in certain populations or specific families, there might be more risks. Dr. Chung says that’s because of a category of genetic conditions.

Wendy Chung: There are certain conditions where it takes two to tango, is the way I talk about it. You have two copies of your gene, one from your mom, one from your dad, and for certain of these conditions, it takes these genetic changes in both copies of the genes to cause a problem, largely because the gene is not showing up to work and not doing its job. And so, if you have 50% of that gene doing its job, that's okay, you can get by. But when you're missing 100%, when you're missing it totally or close to totally, that's when the mischief occurs.

Mona Chalabi:
When Dr. Chung says mischief, she’s talking about autosomal recessive conditions, and there are thousands that geneticists know about. Most of them, you’ve probably never heard of. But some of them are pretty well-known, and pretty serious, like sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, or spinal muscular atrophy.

Most of us—most people in the world—carry a few anomalous recessive genes. Genes that, if you have one anomalous copy, you’re okay, but if you have two anomalous copies, you’ll have a disorder.

Because SO many of us carry these anomalous recessive genes, you don’t have to be married to your cousin to have a child with a recessive disorder. BUT...

Wendy Chung:
There is definitely, when you share twelve and a half percent of your genetic information with your partner, there's an increased risk that both of you will carry a mutation within the same gene that you've inherited from a common ancestor.

Mona Chalabi:
What Dr. Chung is saying is: you and your first cousin share 12.5% of the same DNA, the DNA that you inherited from your common grandparents. So there’s a higher chance that you BOTH inherited an anomalous gene from your common grandparents. And if BOTH of you are carriers for the same recessive genetic condition?

Wendy Chung: That's when the mischief occurs.

Mona Chalabi:
...THAT’S when there’s a higher likelihood that a child could be born with a genetic disorder.

And to figure out the genetic risk involved in a cousin marriage, Dr. Chung says that we can’t just look at that one couple or one family.

Wendy Chung:
It's not just a matter of first-cousin marriages, it's actually the larger population context in which that's happening. And so, what I mean by that is that, in certain communities, there may have been intermarriages for generations. And in fact, that whole, whether it's a, an island, a village, a city, you know, there may have been, a relatively high frequency of certain genetic variants in certain genes that confer a higher risk of disease. And so I'll just give you an example, in certain Royal families, for instance, and this has been true—

Mona Chalabi:
Like the British one!

Wendy Chung:
Right? And so, with certain Royal families, it's been, in terms of keeping the power, keeping the wealth within the family, that's the way this was done. And so it's not simply a matter of sharing, you know, 12.5% of your genetic information. It's actually potentially sharing a much larger fraction of your genetic information, because of those relationships over multiple generations.

Mona Chalabi:
Dr. Chung is saying, when a population has LOTS of cousin marriage in its past, there is a higher risk of having children with genetic disorders. But when there’s not much cousin marriage, that risk is a lot lower.

My family, which, by the way, ISN’T royalty, might be on the lower end of that risk spectrum.

Mona Chalabi:
Geneticists can’t put a hard number on the risk of recessive conditions for all cousin marriages. Each family, each couple, is different. So, to figure out a couple’s risk, a geneticist would need to look at their genes to see if they’re both carriers for the same conditions.

That is particularly important in communities where those disorders are more prevalent... like the tight-knit ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York that Dr. Chung works with.

Wendy Chung:
One member from the community, Rabbi Eckstein, was unfortunately tragically affected with his family because he had multiple children with Tay-Sachs disease. And as some people know, Tay-Sachs is a lethal condition. We still to this day have no treatment for this and children die, you know, before the age of five and it's not a pleasant way to go. And it can be stigmatizing in terms of knowing that you're a carrier for Tay-Sachs. And if your family had this—I call it the scarlet letter G—that you, your family has this certain genetic condition, you might not be as desirable in terms of the matchmaking in the community.

Mona Chalabi:
Matchmaking is how most marriages in the community are made. And that cultural practice became an opportunity to solve the problem of Tay-Sachs. Rabbi Eckstein came up with a plan to have young people get a genetic test before being matched with prospective partners. Tay-Sachs carriers would only be matched with non-carriers.

Wendy Chung:
So it would be better, rather than for you to have to go through and potentially have a child with Tay-Sachs, to be able to find someone else. And, and culturally, that has been extremely well-accepted, well-regarded, and this program now has in fact beentransformative for the Orthodox Jewish community, in that we really don't see Tay-Sachs anymore.

Mona Chalabi:
So, while marrying your cousin can be risky in some communities, generally, the risk ISN’T that much higher than the general population. And with the help of science—things like genetic counseling and IVF—communities can minimize the risk of recessive conditions even more.

Wendy Chung:
I want to be very clear, I'm not telling couples not to have children. I'm not telling them, you know, what’s, you know, that there's something wrong or there's taboo with this. It's mainly to me about giving couples information and options and, you know, letting them make decisions about what's right for them.

Mona Chalabi:
The genetic risks of marrying your cousin have been blown WAY out of proportion. And with modern science, cousin marriage is probably safer than ever.

So people were using inaccurate information to justify the cousin marriage taboo. And now that you all know what the genetic risks are, the taboo should suddenly be lifted, right?

Well, not exactly...

Back in 2015, I got a seemingly simple question from a reader: How many Americans are married to their cousins? I went digging and the best available data I could find was from 1981. It said that 0.2% of Americans, about 250,000 of them, are married to their cousins.

I wrote a column about it, including information about the science of genetic disorders and cousin marriage. And the column BLEW UP. It was the most read article on the site, and it got a whole bunch of reactions on social media and in the reader comments.

Some people were totally on board with cousin marriage.

“I used to crush on a cousin something FIERCE. I think that is normal when you are 15 and the only members of the opposite sex who will talk to you are relatives.”

Some, like me, had family members who are related, and didn’t know what all the fuss was about.

“My uncle is married to his cousin, and all five kids are extremely intelligent.”

I had written about the genetic stuff, and the article did seem to allay some old fears...

“One set of my great-grandparents were first cousins. I suppose that genetic risk is pretty much diluted by now.”

...but despite the genetics stuff I wrote about, some folks were still using cousin marriage to shame people.

“Whoever wanted to know this answer is creepy.”

“How can you run this article without using a picture of Rudy Giuliani?”

In some of the comments, it went past shame and into taboo:

“Having sex or marrying anyone in your family is NOT okay.”

“It is sick to me... Sick! Those spouses have the SAME BLOOD. That is nasty.”

And then the taboo was overlaid with racism and xenophobia.

“Muslims are the most inbred group on the planet Earth.”

“Now we know what’s wrong with the Middle East.”

And the worst one:

“Okay, so they're both camel AND cousin fuckers. This explains a lot.”

I am used to getting a lot of online abuse. Most of it is generic, sexist, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric. What was different here is that I had taken the time to explain away their reasoning, but people just breezed on past the facts about how this doesn’t add much risk. The data was right there, and still, some people went berserk over the idea of cousin marriage.

That is how tough it is to challenge a taboo. Facts seem to have no immediate effect.

But if facts don’t change people’s minds, then what does?

Most of the cousin marriage bans in the U.S. went into effect from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. But in Texas, the ban is a lot more recent: it’s from 2005. It was in response to the arrival of a fundamentalist Mormon sect that was known for rampant child abuse. So cousin marriage was just lumped in with child marriage. The state representative who proposed the bill said, “Cousins don’t get married just like siblings don’t get married. And when it happens you have a bad result. It’s just not the accepted normal thing.”

The Texas law codifies the cousin marriage stigma. So if laws can codify and reinforce taboos, can getting rid of the laws help to break down the taboo?

There have been other discriminatory marriage laws in American history, laws that were based on racist, made-up science. Anti-miscegenation laws were supported by the bullshit of eugenics. And eugenics, in turn, was supported by beliefs about racial purity, and fears about what would happen if people of different races had kids together.

Almost every state in the U.S. at some point had a law against interracial marriage. But by the mid-1960s, most states had overturned those laws, except for the southern states. In 1967, a supreme court case, Loving v. Virginia, finally struck down all the remaining bans on interracial marriage. And when the law changed, it helped speed up a change in the culture, too.

See, in 1967, 3% of marriages in the U.S. were between people of different races. By 2015, it was 17%. And, as practices changed, so did people’s attitudes.

In 1958, just 4% of Americans said that interracial marriage was acceptable. In 1968, the year after the supreme court ruling, approval was at 20%. And by 2021, 54 years after Loving v. Virginia, 94% of Americans said that marriage between people of different races was okay.

From 4% approval to 94% in 63 years? That is a big change, in what isn’t such a long time, all things considered. So culture CAN change in big ways. Stigmas CAN shift.

Maybe, in order to break down stigmas, we don’t just need data: we also need to break down the legal frameworks that reinforce them. And then we need to wait, because cultural change takes time.

And meanwhile, it’s probably helpful to ask who taboos are serving, and what they’re really trying to do. See, cousin marriage is largely practiced in non-white cultures, and part of the prejudice against it—that ‘ick’—is just plain racism. Doesn’t matter that cousin marriage is good enough for the queen of England. If Arabs and North Africans and South Asians are doing it too, then some people are going to think it’s gross.

If we want to banish that shame, it helps to see examples of cousin marriage. I have a great example of a cousin couple in my family. But most Americans don’t. So maybe, what we really need to break the stigma is a CELEBRITY cousin-couple... a Kardashian cousin-couple to let everyone know it’s okay to date your cousin. Maybe YOU fancy your cousin, and you can let that be an example. And maybe you can send your hot cousin this podcast and ask them out on a date.

(Oh, I don’t think the world is ready for an ending like that!)

In this season of Am I Normal?, I’ve moved across an ocean, broken up with a boyfriend, and figured out what the hell was going on with my teeth.

Research has been helpful with some of that. But ironically I’ve spent my career as a data journalist trying to tell people: it’s not ALL about the data. We need to go outside of the spreadsheets, to look at the systems that got us these numbers.

We often think that data is the bottom line, but the bottom line, for me, is just trying to figure out what we actually know. And what we just can’t.

If you’ve enjoyed the show, thank you. Please rate and review it, and tell your friends and your mum.

Am I Normal? is part of the TED Audio Collective. It’s hosted and produced by me, Mona Chalabi, and brought to you by TED and Transmitter Media. This episode was produced by Shoshi Shmuluvitz. Sara Nics is Transmitter’s Executive Editor, Wilson Sayre and Lacy Roberts are our Managing Producers, and Gretta Cohn is our Executive Producer. The TED Team is Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Jennifer Nam is our fantastic researcher and fact checker. Additional production by Domino Sound.

That original theme song you heard is by Sasami. Michelle Macklem is our sound designer and mix engineer. Additional help from Debbie Daughtry.

Special thanks this season to Ama Adi-Dako, Nicole Bode, Valentina Bojanini, Micah Eames, Nicole Edine, Will Hennessy, Marie Kim, Sarah Lee, Jen Michalski, Anna Phelan, Alex Segell, Sarah Jane Souther, Emma Taubner, and Peter Zweifel.

And thanks to someone who first got me thinking critically about cousin marriage: my mum.

For the transcripts and research I talk about in this show, you can find the link in the description.

That’s it for this season of Am I Normal? If you enjoyed the show and want to support us, hit the share button and send this to someone else you think will love pushing the boundaries on what we think we know about data!

For more from this episode’s guest, Wendy Chung, check out her Columbia University profile and Twitter.