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The American Tradition of Marrying Cousins

Alexander Graham Bell, best known for inventing the telephone, also waded into the debate. He suggested introducing legislation to ban consanguineous marriages in families with deaf-mute members so that the condition would not be inherited by children of such marriages.

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The legality of cousin marriage in the United States varies from state to state. The practice is illegal in 25 states. A first cousin is the child of either parent's brother or sister. Pixabay

What do famous Americans such as author Edgar Allan Poe, Wild West outlaw Jesse James and theoretical physicist Albert Einstein have in common?

They all reportedly married their first cousins.

The legality of cousin marriage in the United States varies from state to state. The practice is illegal in 25 states. A first cousin is the child of either parent’s brother or sister.

In some societies around the world, marrying a first cousin is often preferable, not only to keep property or money within the family, but in some cases to keep a “good catch” from going off with a stranger.

But the practice is generally viewed as taboo in the United States.

Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa, his first cousin, arrive in the port of San Diego, California, December 30, 1930.
Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa, his first cousin, arrive in the port of San Diego, California, December 30, 1930. VOA

Opposition to first-cousin marriage in the U.S. dates back to the Puritans, among the earliest European settlers in America, who opposed such unions as far back as the 17th century, according to the book “Consanguinity in Context” by medical geneticist Alan Bittles.

Marriages are considered “consanguineous” when couples are either second cousins or more closely related.

The first actual laws against first-cousin marriage appeared during the Civil War era, with Kansas banning the practice in 1858, followed by Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, New Hampshire, Ohio and Wyoming in the 1860s.

While first-cousin marriages were once favored by the upper classes in the U.S., such alliances declined sharply in the mid-to-late 19th century, possibly because advances in transportation and communication offered perspective brides and grooms greater access to a wider pool of marital prospects.

The gravesite of infamous Wild West outlaw Jesse James and his wife, Zerelda, the first cousin he married after a 9-year courtship, at a cemetery in Kearney, Missouri.
The gravesite of infamous Wild West outlaw Jesse James and his wife, Zerelda, the first cousin he married after a 9-year courtship, at a cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. VOA

Also, as families grew smaller, so did the number of marriageable cousins. And women became more independent during that period, so their marital options increased.

One of the earliest people to influence American public opinion on the issue was the Rev. Charles Brooks of Massachusetts. Brooks delivered a paper at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1855 that asserted first-cousin marriage led to birth defects among the children of such unions.

Alexander Graham Bell, best known for inventing the telephone, also waded into the debate. He suggested introducing legislation to ban consanguineous marriages in families with deaf-mute members so that the condition would not be inherited by children of such marriages.

A seven-year Columbia University study published in 2018 found that children whose parents are first cousins have a 4% to 7% probability of birth defects, compared with 3% to 4% when the parents are distant relatives who marry.

From 1650 to 1850, the average person was fourth cousins with their spouse, according to the study. By 1950, the average person was married to their seventh cousin. The researchers believe that today, many couples are 10th to 12th cousins.

First Cousin Marriage Laws in the United States
First Cousin Marriage Laws in the United States. VOA

The data on consanguineous marriage in the U.S. is “scant and incomplete,” according to Bittles. CousinCouples.com, a website for people who are romantically involved with their cousin, estimates that about one out of every 1,000 U.S. marriages is between first cousins.

However, Bittles finds that number to be unrealistically low.

“The recent large-scale migration to the USA of couples from countries where consanguineous marriage is traditional may not reveal their premarital relationship,” he told VOA via email. “In terms of numbers, this particularly applies to immigrants from Arab countries … where 20-plus percent of marriages are consanguineous, and South Asian countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan where more than 50% of marriages may be consanguineous.”

Some states allow first-cousin marriages only if the couple can’t have children because they are too old or one of the parties is found to be infertile.

Founding father John Adams, second president of the United States, married to his third cousin, Abigail, and they had six children.
Founding father John Adams, second president of the United States, married to his third cousin, Abigail, and they had six children. VOA

When you look past first cousins, there are a number of prominent Americans who married more distant cousins. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both said “I do” to their third cousins. President Franklin Roosevelt was married to his fifth cousin, once removed. And the first wife of Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York and President Donald Trump’s lawyer, was his second cousin once removed.

Worldwide, only a handful of countries prohibit first cousin marriages.

Also Read: Deaths Rising in U.S. Due To Heart Failure, Especially in Younger Adults

“Besides the USA, they comprise the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Philippines,” Bittles says. “Even in the People’s Republic of China, the ban on first-cousin marriages is not enforced in officially recognized ethnic minorities where consanguineous marriage has been traditional.”

Bittles expects the number of cousin marriages in the U.S. to diminish over time as family sizes decline and there are fewer cousins available to marry, and as the children of migrants internalize negative mainstream U.S. views on marrying your cousin. (VOA)

Next Story

Deaths Rising in U.S. Due To Heart Failure, Especially in Younger Adults

Between 1999 and 2012, annual heart failure death rates dropped from 78.7 per 100,000 people to 53.7 per 100,000, the researchers found. But then mortality rates started to climb, reaching 59.3 fatalities for every 100,000 people by the end of the study period.

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Two women converse in New York, June 26, 2012. The nation's obesity epidemic continues to grow, led by an alarming increase among women. Obesity is one of the risk factors of heart failure. VOA

More U.S. adults are dying from heart failure today than a decade ago, and the sharpest rise in mortality is happening among middle-aged and younger adults, a new study suggests.

Researchers examined data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on deaths from heart failure between 1999 and 2017 among adults 35 to 84 years old.

Between 1999 and 2012, annual heart failure death rates dropped from 78.7 per 100,000 people to 53.7 per 100,000, the researchers found. But then mortality rates started to climb, reaching 59.3 fatalities for every 100,000 people by the end of the study period.

“Up until 2012, we saw decline in cardiovascular deaths in patients with heart failure and this was likely due to advances in medical and surgical treatments for heart failure,” said senior study author Dr. Sadiya Khan of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“However, this study demonstrates for the first time that the cardiovascular death rate is now increasing in patients with heart failure and this increase is especially concerning for premature death in people under 65,” Khan said by email.

A person receives a test for diabetes during Care Harbor L.A. free medical clinic in Los Angeles, Sept. 11, 2014.
A person receives a test for diabetes during Care Harbor L.A. free medical clinic in Los Angeles, Sept. 11, 2014.

Heart failure by the numbers

About 5.7 million American adults have heart failure, according to the CDC, and about half of the people who develop this condition die within five years of diagnosis. Heart failure happens when the heart can’t pump enough blood and oxygen to supply vital organs.

In the study, African Americans were more likely to die of heart failure than whites, and this disparity was especially pronounced among younger adults, researchers report in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Compared to white men, black men had a 1.16-fold higher risk of death from heart failure in 1999 but a 1.43-fold higher mortality risk by 2017, the study found.

And, compared to white women, black women started out with a 1.35-fold higher risk of death from heart failure and had a 1.54-fold greater risk by the end of the study period.

When researchers looked just at adults 35 to 64 years old, the racial disparity was even starker: by 2017 black men had a 2.60-fold higher risk of death from heart failure and black women had a 2.97 fold higher risk of death.

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“Heart failure is preventable and treatable,” Fonarow said. “There is an urgent need … to eliminate the healthcare policy that has been associated with the increase in heart failure deaths. Pixabay

“More than 50 percent of black adults have hypertension and have high rates of obesity and diabetes, and this may explain a portion of the disparities in heart failure mortality,” Khan said.

Risk factors, access to care

“Beyond differences in risk factor prevalence, disparities in access to care unfortunately contribute to both inadequate prevention and diagnosis,” Khan added. “We need to do better in terms of access to care for all Americans.”

The study used data from the CDC that includes the underlying and contributing cause of death from all death certificates in the U.S. between 1999 to 2017, for a total of more than 47.7 million people.

The study wasn’t designed to determine what might be causing the rise in heart failure deaths.

“Some have speculated this mortality increase has to do with increased prevalence of heart failure risk factors of diabetes and obesity,” said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a cardiologist and researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who wasn’t involved in the study.

However, it’s also possible that a recent shift in Medicare payment rules designed to curb repeat hospitalizations may have “also contributed to the increases in mortality by restricting necessary care, particularly in the most vulnerable heart failure patients,” Fonarow said by email.

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While black men are more likely to develop heart failure at younger ages, and less likely to receive recommended treatments, they’re also more likely to be treated at hospitals that are disproportionately impacted by Medicare efforts to curb repeat hospitalizations, or readmissions, Fonarow said.

“Heart failure is preventable and treatable,” Fonarow said. “There is an urgent need … to eliminate the healthcare policy that has been associated with the increase in heart failure deaths.” (VOA)