Homosexuality, polygamy, and incest.

Science, technology, and life.
May 16 2008 1:40 AM

Free To Be You and You and Me

Homosexuality, polygamy, and incest.

Read Slate's legal bloggers' reactions to the California same-sex marriage ruling on Convictions. Also in Slate, Kenji Yoshino   calls the decision "revolutionary,"  Emily Bazelon  explains why voters might not freak out, and Dahlia Lithwick explores which branch of California's government has been most "activist."

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In other words, polygamy now has the same legal status as homosexuality in most jurisdictions: Your second marriage won't carry any legal weight, but it'll be tolerated.

In reality, most polygamist communities are authoritarian and push girls into marriage before they're old enough. That's why Texas raided a polygamist compound last month. But the raid has actually clarified the distinction between plural and underage marriage. "This is not about polygamy," a Texas government spokesman tells the Dallas Morning News. "It is about child sexual abuse and our commitment to protect children."

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Furthermore, the raid—complete with bogus intelligence and an aftermath fiasco—is already doing for polygamy prosecution what the Iraq war has done for invasions: reminding us why it's better to stay out.

Now comes the third item in Santorum's axis of evil: incest.

Is incest unnatural? Not exactly. Last month, Science News reported that inbreeding is surprisingly common in nature, apparently for sound Darwinian reasons.

Is it common among humans? Not as a brother-sister arrangement. But millions of people are doing the next-best thing. In a sample of Pakistanis, first-cousin couples accounted for around 60 percent of all marriages. In a sample of Indians, first-cousin couples accounted for one-third of the marriages, and uncle-niece couples accounted for one-fifth.

Do cousin marriages lead to genetic disease? Generally, no. Six years ago, a study by the National Society of Genetic Counselors found that having a child with your first cousin raised the risk of a significant birth defect from about 3 percent to 4 percent to about 4 percent to 7 percent. The authors concluded that this difference wasn't enough to justify genetic testing of cousin couples, much less bans on cousin marriage.

Is this just a foreign problem? Nope. Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Rudy Giuliani married their cousins. And globalization is bringing Asian practices to the West. In Britain, the challenge is coming from Pakistani immigrants. Next week, the Royal Society of Medicine will discuss genetics in a multiethnic society. A week later, geneticists will hold a forum titled " Cousin Marriage: A Cause for Concern?" Defenders of the practice are ready. In addition to the data about low probability of birth defects, they note that women are increasingly having babies in their 30s, which multiplies the chance of Down syndrome. Why tolerate one risky choice but not the other?

We'd better start thinking about these questions. Because we're going to have to answer them.

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