Rise in marriages between cousins ‘putting children at risk of birth defects’, warns Baroness

MAILONLINE… A rise in the number of marriages between cousins in Britain has prompted calls for a crackdown on the practice amid warnings it is putting children’s health at risk.

Crossbench peer Baroness Deech has called for a ‘vigorous’ public campaign to deter marriages between family members, which is common in Muslim and immigrant communities.

Her comments come as figures show up to 75 per cent of British Pakistanis in some areas are married to first cousins.

In a speech to be made next week, obtained by The Times, the leading family lawyer will warn that such marriages can be a barrier to the integration of minority communities and increases the risk of birth defects in children.

She is also expected to call for testing for genetic defects when marriages between family members are arranged and for a register of people carrying genetic diseases to be set up in order for two carriers not to be introduced.

She said such a scheme could be possible in Bradford, which has the UK’s highest population of Pakistanis. 

Up to three-quarters of Pakistanis in Bradford are married to their first cousins.

The trend is also evident in Birmingham, where figures show that one in ten of all children born to first cousins died in childhood or suffered from a serious genetic disorder.

British Pakistanis, half of whom marry a first cousin, are 13 times more likely to produce children with genetic disorders than the general population, according to Government-sponsored research.

Although British Pakistanis account for three per cent of the births in this country, they are responsible for 33 per cent of the 15 to 20,000 children born each year with genetic defects.

Baroness Deech will also suggest that married first cousins use in-vitro fertilisation so that embryos can be tested for recessive diseases.

‘Human right and religious and cultural practices are respected not by banning cousin marriage,’ she will argue.

‘But those involved must be made aware of the consequences.’

In next week’s speech, she will say that marriages between cousins is on the rise and the practice is ‘at odds with freedom of choice, romantic love and integration.’

But she said the practice was continuing because of financial reasons – either to settle debts or provide financial support for relatives abroad; helping relatives to migrate to Britain or wanting to provide a ‘ready-made’ family for an immigrant spouse.

Lady Deech will also call for an education campaign to warn of the health risks of such marriages, but will stop short of urging a ban.

‘There is no reason, one could argue, why there should not be a campaign to highlight the risks and preventative measures, every bit as vigorous as those centring on smoking, obesity and Aids.’

‘Where marriages are arranged, it is possible to test for carrier status and record with results, without stigmatising individuals.’

Her speech is set to reignite a debate from five years ago when Ann Cryer, the Labour MP for Keighley in Yorkshire, said cousin marriages were medieval and called for them to be stopped.

Ms Cryer encouraged discussion the issue this week.

‘We have been told to be careful, as discussing it could cause deep offence. Blow that, it does not matter. If people wish to be offended, they will be offended.’

Two years ago Minister Phil Woolas provoked a furore by warning of the health risks of cousin marriages among British Pakistanis.

He claimed the practice was sending the number of birth defects among children in these communities soaring.

His comments prompted Gordon Brown’s spokesman to state that the issue was not one for ministers to comment on.

Instead, he said, it should be addressed by members of the local community and scientific experts.

Mr Woolas insisted that he had a duty to raise the subject of cousin marriage – which is legal in the UK – based on cultural and not religious grounds.

Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Inyat Bunglawala welcomed Lady Deech’s comments.

He said cousin marriage was popular even though Islamic teaching encouraged wedlock outside the immediate family.

‘Certainly education has an important role to play in this area. There are clear dangers to marrying a close relative, which need to be better understood.’

Lady Deech’s speech is the latest in a series of family law lectures she has given under the auspices of Gresham College.

In a speech last week she said English law no longer had a clear concept of marriage.

She said the traditional Christian image of a lifelong union of man and woman is no longer accurate because of the changing nature of relationships and the introduction of legal rights for same-sex couples.

Lady Deech said she believes that human rights law may soon rule that it is discriminatory to ban homosexuals from marrying in the same way that heterosexual couples do.

But she added that some differences between civil partnerships and marriages should be preserved, and criticised recent Labour laws that allow same-sex couples to be named on birth certificates with no mention of a father.

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