First-Cousin Marriage Ban Proposed by Maryland Legislators


Maryland delegates Henry Heller and Joseph Vallario have introduced another bill to ban first-cousin marriage in Maryland. According to information released so far, it would ban cousin marriage for those under age 65, exempting couples where one partner could prove infertility. Heller had earlier introduced a bill to ban all first-cousin marriage in 2000, so he may be trying to compromise to avoid the same fate as last time. The bill came extremely close to passing then: it passed the State House by 82-46, only to be stopped by some unknown hero in the Senate, where it died before being put to a vote. Prejudice being what it is, had that bill been actually put to a vote, it most likely would have passed. Stopping this bill will probably be no easy task.

Cousin marriage is pissed upon as an issue in America today. Just look at this blog post:

So, the contest for most bizarre bill of the session may be over.

Democratic Dels. Henry Heller of Montgomery County and Joseph Vallario of Prince George’s County have introduced a bill that would both prohibit marriages between first cousins and allow them under specific circumstances. In the short synopsis released so far, those circumstances would be if both people are over the age of 65 or if one individual can show proof he or she is infertile.

At the beginning of the session I would not have anticipated a bill related to consanguinity, but the General Assembly remains – as always – an unpredictable place.

This issue is seen as not just bizarre, but the most bizarre issue of the whole session! Part of this ignorance is no doubt related to the unusually small numbers of people affected in the United States: less than 0.2% of American Catholics were found to be first or second cousins in studies done fifty years ago. Numbers in many other countries are far higher, and today the world record appears to be Pakistan, which in one study at least had an overall rate above 60%. But we should think twice about seeing current numbers as a measure of significance: the total amount of all interracial marriage in 1960 was only 0.4%, and the rate of black-white marriage was 0.13%. The only major difference in the status of first-cousin marriage today and black-white marriage then is that anti-miscegenation laws then were actually enforced. But would we balk today if black-white marriages were "merely" declared null and void, with several states making them a felony, albeit a generally unenforced one? Something tells me we might.

Heller said in 2005 that he might resurrect the bill at some point because first-cousin marriage "is like playing genetic roulette." That was just as misleading then as it is now. First-cousin marriage has on average a 1.7-2.8% increased risk of birth defects over the base risk of about 3% for an unrelated couple. That is the same as the risk an unrelated couple faces when the mother gives birth at age 41, since increased maternal age heightens the risk. Those who abuse alcohol and cocaine during pregnancy may face far greater risks. The risk is less than an order of magnitude smaller than faced by sufferers from genetic diseases that are autosomal dominant, which means that children face a 50% chance of inheriting the disease. No one in these categories is attacked and discriminated against to the degree that married cousins are, even the alcohol and cocaine abusers.

Considering the small numbers of people affected and the size of the genetic risk involved, Delegate Heller’s move to ban first-cousin marriage comes off not as a sincere policy proposal but instead as a cynical attempt to score political points by beating up on a minority. The fact is that such a ban would surely constitute inexcusable discrimination and bigotry. I will be posting my letter to Mr. Heller and his followers shortly.

Further information on cousin marriage is available at its Wikipedia page.

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