The fact that Charles II of Spain lived to the age of thirty-eight was nothing short of a miracle- and that’s not because he was born in the 17th century. His nearly four-decade life was filled with physical and mental ailments that would be hard to live with even today’s medical technology.
He flew through wet nurses due to continually biting their nipples until his mother ordered them to stop. Charles could not walk until he was four and walk until he was six, having trouble with both for the rest of his life. He suffered from severe depression and unknown learning and developmental disabilities. On top of this, he had hallucinations, seizures, a congenital heart defect and premature ejaculation. An autopsy revealed a body that sounds like something out of a horror film- one single shrunken testicle, a body without a single drop of blood and rotted intestines. Despite his litany of ailments, he was reportedly a kind boy who enjoyed hunting. Whilst he was clearly at fault in terms of infertility, his poor wives were blamed for not bearing an heir.
The problem with Charles, inheritor of the famous Habsburg chin, was his family line. The Habsburg clan famously interbred and between 1515 and his birth in 1661, no new members were brought to the genetic line. His family tree reads like a wreath and he is related multiple times to each of his family members. Charles’ father was born to two first cousins, whilst his mother was the daughter of an uncle and niece. His parents were similarly uncle and niece. Charles’ sister Margaret Theresa managed to avoid the worst of it all, but she was married off to a man who was both her cousin and her uncle. Only one of her four children managed to pass infancy- she was originally intended to marry her uncle, but never did.
Years of cousin marriage in royal circles led to poor outcomes. Many of these marriages were more distant, but first cousin marriages were not at all rare, particularly on the continent. Philip II of Spain and Maria Manuel were double first cousins, and the only son they produced was so severely disturbed that there was no way that he could take the throne. Philip would marry thrice again- to his first cousin once removed Mary I of England that resulted in no children, the unrelated Elisabeth of Valois with whom he had two very intelligent, capable daughters, and to his niece Anna of Austria, with whom he had one living son.
Another example is that of Philip’s daughter Isabella Clara Eugenia, who married her first cousin Albert VIII of Austria. None of her three children lived past childhood. Philip’s other daughter Catalina Micaela married an unrelated husband but was weakened by having children every year. His son Philip also married his first cousin once removed but fortunately had five children live to adulthood.
We imagine these cousin marriages happening hundreds of years ago, but it is not quite as extinct as one might hope. Even more worryingly, first cousin marriage is perfectly legal in the UK. There’s a stereotype in the Southern USA that white trash folk marry their cousins, but it’s actually completely illegal in most of those states. Here, however, you can go ahead and marry your uncle’s kid.
The practice is most common within Muslims in the UK, with areas such as Bradford seeing large numbers marrying their cousin. The BBC recently reported that cousin marriage for Pakistanis and those of Pakistani origin in Bradford dropped from 60% to 46%- a drop, but not a large enough drop to be sure.
This needs to stop.
First, we must understand why people marry their first cousins. Whilst the Quran lists people who it is forbidden to marry and have relations with, such as siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins are not one of them. Furthermore, across all religious lines, there are economic and social reasons. Money is kept in the family instead of outside clans, tribes and faiths. It keeps a person linked to their family, with an expectation that they will have a stronger connection. For some whose family are originally from abroad, it might keep them linked to their heritage in an alien culture.
The problem, however, lies with the results.
When a person marries a close relation, there is a higher chance of genetic problems for any children. The chance is further increased if there is a family history of cousin marriages. The risk of birth defects increases from 3% to 6% in a cousin marriage- not a huge jump, but an unnecessary and entirely avoidable one for innocent kids. When it comes to fatal genetic disorders, children of South Asian parents are overrepresented in the data- they make up 65% of deaths but 37% of the population. Cousin marriage resulted in the death of 53% of children mentioned.
A 2017 study found that 1 in 5 child deaths in East London came from the parents being related. A 2010 study found 700 children a year were born with genetic disorders as a result of cousin marriage. It is not a minute problem. In a recent episode of the thoroughly fascinating show Cause of Death, which follows the work of a coroner, a young man of thirty-three died suddenly of a rare disorder. Two of his siblings had also died, whilst at least two of the others had tested positive for the disorder. Their parents are cousins.
When it comes to pregnancy, women are told not to take any risks that may harm the baby. She is required to stop smoking, drinking and consuming caffeine. Doing any of those things means risks to the unborn child, so why do we permit cousins to marry when we know the risks?
Even Islamic countries have picked up on the issues, though they have obviously taken no steps to ban the practice. Cousin marriage is very high, even the norm, in Saudi Arabia, and is a nation home to a high number of genetic disorders. As a result, Saudi Arabia has mandated premarital genetic screening for couples. If the results are revealed to be risky, then there’s a way out for the couple. It is said that 60% of couples have ended their engagement after receiving bad news. Iran has implemented a similar system, as well as six other Middle Eastern nations.
If these countries can do something, why can’t we?