(This is an old post, first posted on Tumblr in August 2014)
I began writing a piece on this topic earlier but I had to abandon it because the more I wrote, the more I realized what a complex topic it really is. The only part of the abandoned blog that I would repeat here is this: there is no easy answer.
The moment you begin to think about who should or shouldn’t have kids, when is the right time, how it should be accomplished, etc, you find yourself mired in a tangle of inconsistent rules and incomplete answers that are often only a reflection of your own (very personal) worldview. No matter how objectively you try to present the statement “you shouldn’t have children” to a consanguinamorous couple, no matter how hard you try to justify it on the basis of potential health risks, it still doesn’t change the fact that the issue is so much more complicated than one that could be brushed aside with a simple, impulsively uttered phrase.
For information specific to cousin couple reproduction: have a glance at this blog I wrote about genetics.
♢ The Risks ♢
Much of the opposition towards consanguineous relationships is often based on a belief that the results of such unions would be “harmful to children.” If you’ve done your research you would know that this belief is not entirely without basis. There are genetic risks involved in making children with a blood-relation. However, these risks are often exaggerated in the eyes of people who seem to focus mostly on the negatives – or used as an excuse to halt themselves from exploring consanguinamory in depth. If there really were dramatic and frequent health problems, I doubt cousin marriage would be such a widespread practice. In fact, the chances of a cousin couple having a child with genetic defects are not much higher than those for non-related couples.
There is, however, a heightened risk factor if there are several generations of cousin marriages in either partner’s direct lineage (this is why genetic counselling examines at least 4 generations of your family history). One example of this scenario is Darwin’s family (there were several cousin marriages in both his lineage as well as his wife’s). See article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1270760/How-Charles-Darwins-family-paid-price-inbreeding.html
Although much of the details of Darwin’s family history can be disheartening and alarming, later studies on the subject have maintained that, “recessive or defect-carrying genes in a population may increase or decrease in instances of inbreeding. The frequency of birth defects depends on the availability and effectiveness of healthcare in a population.” (from article by thefinalmanifesto. See “Health of Their Children” Section)
Other studies of consanguineous reproduction in nature might give some weight to these later findings.
Just a glance at these examples and their conflicting implications is enough to give anyone a headache. Imagine how much more anxiety an actual consanguineous couple would experience when thinking about their odds and planning their future together. With so many different theories and case studies out there, which results do you believe? How do you begin to sort out the information when there are still missing gaps in the puzzle?
♢ The Couple ♢
People are so quick to use the phrases “you shouldn’t have children”, “they’ll be unhealthy”. When all else fails in the attempt to find strong arguments against consanguinamory, people seem to think that pointing out the risk factor is enough to discourage the couple, or to make them (the outsider) feel like they have some kind of special moral compass that the couples lack.
Many don’t pause to think how cruel and hurtful what they are saying may be to those being addressed. Inevitably you’re going to think it. If you are a responsible human being, you are naturally going to be worried about the risks of consanguineous lovers reproducing… Maybe the sense of responsibility you feel would even prevent you from supporting that kind of relationship altogether. Perhaps society has an underlying fear that if they encourage consanguinamory they have to take responsibility (indirectly) for any genetic problems that the offspring of these couples may have.
Yet if people really think this way, then their actions are inconsistent with their thoughts. Because there are many other couples whose love these same people would readily encourage without knowing anything about their genetics beyond what the eye can see. People don’t go around saying ‘don’t have children’ to non-related couples (who may or may not have bad genetics in their bloodlines), so why use it as an obligatory response reserved only for consanguineous partners?
When a non-related couple announce that they are dating or engaged, few would oppose them on the grounds of reproduction. They might oppose them for various other personal reasons (the man is ‘too old’, the woman is ‘too young’, one of them makes less money than the other, one of them has kids from a previous marriage, cultural differences, religious differences, etc). But rarely would someone say anything about making children (to their faces anyway). Even where a couple who had met later in life are concerned (their ages inevitably heightening the risks of reproduction), people might have enough courtesy not to mention the topic of making children to them – whatever their personal opinion on it. Why is it so hard to show the same sensitivity and respect towards consanguineous couples?
♢ Friends and Family ♢
It’s true that there is a considerable difference in the way strangers communicate and the way friends and family communicate with each other. Where a stranger could simply shrug off something that bothers them about someone else’s life as being of no consequence to their own, it might be difficult for a friend to stay silent on the same matter – especially if what they want to say is out of genuine concern for the wellbeing of the couple and potential kids.
So reactions of doubtfulness and hesitation might not always be the projection of someone’s social conditioning. It might be selfless concern, or maybe they are assuming a related couple wouldn’t want to have children anyway, or they are speaking with a lack of in-depth knowledge about the reproductive possibilities for consanguinamorous couples.
Where ever you are coming from, a little empathy would go a long way in figuring out the right thing to say – whether you’re approaching the issue as a friend, a concerned family member, or stranger to the couple. Have you ever had to go through life with a certain unalterable condition or reputation? For example, if you were always shorter than others your age, you might’ve heard these things – “you’re so tiny!” “girls don’t go for short guys” “try shopping in the kids’ section” – and other such redundant comments a million times. You’ve probably heard people point out the obvious SO often that you’ve become numb to it, but it still doesn’t quite cease to hurt.
It’s natural for people to want children with the person they love. Many gay people still want kids, so why not related couples? if they are responsible people, they already know what they are getting into. It would be difficult enough for them to overcome their own internal doubts and socially influenced ideas of morality. They would already be struggling with it on their own without needing someone else to point out the obvious. There are going to be risks. They likely already know that. And if they don’t, maybe you can educate them with some real facts, presented sensitively and neutrally, instead of discouraging them with exaggerated myths and your own preferences.
Telling a cousin couple that they shouldn’t have children with each other is in part an extension of the stigma attached to such relationships, and the stigma attached to such relationships is a result of the anxieties around reproduction – an unbroken loop of prejudice. But when you remove all those artificial and subjective boundaries, what’s left is two people with the potential to make a healthy family and have a loving relationship together, just like any other couple (give or take a few advantages and disadvantages, just like any other couple would have).
If you’re going to offer advice or suggestions, offer them something new – factual information to fill the gaps – something productive that’s actually going to help them make this incredibly important decision in life.
A consanguineous couple would already be carrying around internal stigma, arising from a fear of what others would say, anxiety about how their children or grandchildren might react to their relation. If you were a criminal (convicted for rape, murder, child abuse) that would be seriously difficult for the children to understand or accept… whereas finding out their ancestors were engaged in a stigmatized relationship, with mutual consent and for the sake of love, might be a truth they can come around to live with – and even be proud of. Compared to all possible family secrets, Love should be the least difficult thing to justify.
Take out all that self-censoring and socially constructed shame, and it can even be inspiring… Stories of love overcoming social boundaries can be one of the most inspiring things in the world. There’s no reason why consanguineous love can’t be looked on like that. If you raise your children to be open-minded people they should be able to appreciate the deeper implications of your life choices: that you value honesty, free will, being yourself even when the world is trying to make you something you’re not, building a life with the person you love the most and not a 2nd best, etc.
♢ The Future ♢
See here for a little glimpse into the history of oppression of minority groups. The arguments used against consanguinamorous couples are no different than those used to deny many other minorities’ their reproductive rights throughout history.
Quote from article by thefinalmanifesto (See “Health of Their Children” Section): “You’re probably also worried about how the child will deal with the taboo nature of its parents’ relationship. ‘Isn’t it better that a child grow up in a normal family?’ This is the kind of reasoning that punishes all sexual minorities for the bigotry of the majority. Not only do they have to deal with the derision of the masses, but now they have to give up their own children because of that derision? No enlightened person in this day and age would argue that we should take the children of same-sex couples away from them and have them raised in “normal” families. It would be barbarous, and yet there are homophobic reactionaries who argue against same-sex adoption with a similar argument. We should never let the bigotry of others police our families. A child can learn to deal with ostracism, as long as they have a good support network at home, but no child can learn to live without experiencing love. Isn’t it better that this child grows up in an “abnormal” household that loves them dearly, than a “normal” one that doesn’t?”
This is one part of the argument that appears to be overlooked in studies. There is already so little data to work with when considering the possibilities. Something that would add a lot of weight and insight to the dialogues around reproduction is if the children of these couples can come forward and speak for themselves (just talking about how they deal with stigma, how they feel about their parents’ consanguinity, their quality of life, any disadvantages, family life, personal views on relationships, etc). It might help consanguineous couples make an even more informed decision about their own plans for making a family. A good variety of interviews could potentially show that the issue isn’t so black and white and that making children doesn’t automatically lead to regret (either on the part of the children or the parents). It might also help deconstruct the arguments that many make about children being harmed in consanguineous unions.
♢ Internal Stigma ♢
If you’re part of a minority you will be fighting stigma in various levels all throughout your life. Gay people for instance, often struggle with internal homophobia before they come out. Then they have to re-structure for themselves everything they’ve ever been taught about marriage, making a family, finding community, etc. So this process – of discovering one’s true desires – is a life-long struggle for anyone in a minority. It’s a struggle against the oppression from the majority, who push their values and ideals onto everyone uniformly, not accounting for individual differences.
The worst kind of stigma would be the kind that comes from within the minority community itself. I’m not sure how it’s like in the cousin couple community, but I’ve come across others who are more closely related discouraging each other from making biological children with their partners. Perhaps this is due to the heightened risk factor which cousin couples (fortunately) do not have much of (with the exception of those with multiple cousin marriages in their direct lineage), but a large part of it seems to come directly from within.
Just because you’re at one stage of your personal journey doesn’t mean you have all the answers for another person. They may appear to be like you on the surface, but beneath that they could be seeing things from a totally different vantage point. They could’ve overcome some part of the stigma another individual or couple is still struggling with. They could be looking forward to making a family, or being open about the nature of their relationship with friends. No one knows the future and you can’t decide what another person wants or needs just by glancing at the surface. This is all the more reason to be sensitive when having a dialogue on this subject.
Lastly, encouraging a consanguineous couple doesn’t mean you have to take responsibility for everything they do in life. If they’re responsible people, they’d be prepared to take responsibility for their own lives and their children’s lives.
Just like any other couple.