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Why don't we have a uniform marriage law?

August 29, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
At some point, I think the United States is going to have to have a uniform marriage law.

I see little good in the patchwork of state laws regarding gay marriage. For the record, the number of states permitting gays to marry is up to 13, including our neighbor, Minnesota. Hawaii and New Mexico seem to be the latest states doing battle over the issue.

But there are also some other, far more rare, circumstances that ought to be considered.

North Dakota outlaws marriage between first cousins, for instance, and makes it a criminal offense, but 20 other states permit it. I've never had the faintest desire to marry any of my first or second cousins, but it's a common practice worldwide. Up to half of marriages in the Middle East are between cousins and as many as 10 percent of marriages worldwide are between first and second cousins. Offspring of a first cousin marriage are only slightly more likely to be born with defects than are children of an unrelated couple, according to a column by Dr. Faheen Younus at the Huffington Post back in January. Specifically, the child of an unrelated couple has a 3 to 4 percent chance of being born with a birth defect; the child of a couple who are first cousins has a 4 to 7 percent chance of being born with a birth defect. First cousins, on average, share about 12.5 percent of their genes. The National Society of Genetic Counselors considers the risk of birth defects minimal enough that it doesn't recommend further screening for couples who are cousins.

I knew of a married couple who were first cousins when I was growing up. I believe they had gone to Canada to marry, because it was illegal here, and then had returned to North Dakota to raise their children. As I recall, their kids were all bright and perfectly normal, though a couple of them had health problems that could have been unrelated, since such things also occur in other families. State law also makes it a crime for its residents to leave the state and marry if it would have been illegal for them to marry here.

So, why, aside from the squick factor, does North Dakota make it illegal?

I think age of consent laws ought to be uniform as well. Most states seem to allow minors to marry with parental permission after they turn 16; a few allow younger teens to marry if they have a court order. Alabama and Nebraska set the age of majority at 19 and require 18-year-olds to have permission to marry. People may remember the infamous marriage of 16-year-old Courtney Stodden and 51-year-old actor Doug Hutchison, with the consent of her parents, in Las Vegas in 2011. Relations between the couple would likely have been illegal in a handful of states, though it's unlikely local prosecutors would have bothered to prosecute Hutchison.

Then there's polygamy, practiced by both some Muslims and some members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints as a part of their religion. This is illegal in all jurisdictions in the United States, though I've never thought marriages between two or more consenting adults are any of the government's business.

Marriages between same sex couples, cousin marriages and marriages like that of Hutchsion and Stodden are undoubtedly outside the mainstream. They may make you question the sanity or even the morality of everyone involved. But I think too many headaches result when they are legal in one state and illegal once you cross state lines. I don't think the sky will fall if we look at legalizing (or at least recognizing illegal marriages contracted in another state where they are legal) such irregular marriages.


Article Comments



Sep-05-13 8:51 PM

If birth defects is the primary reason for cousin marriages, then women over 35 should refrain from being pregnant because the chance for birth defects increase. Personally, it seems the only issue here is that we see it as taboo so we consider it morally "wrong". I think if same sex marriage, cousin marriage, or polygamy is what makes them happy then more power to them. I am not going to stop their happiness. It isn't harming anyone.


Aug-29-13 11:11 PM

Like I said, there's a strong taboo against it in the West, which is why it is uncommon and would be if it were legalized everywhere. On the other hand, it's quite common in the Middle East. Judging by the Bible, it was also common back then. I don't think we actually do have more gays and lesbians than we ever did. More of them probably feel comfortable living openly than in the past. Based on the stats, it's somewhere around 5 or 6 percent of the population. Homosexual behavior also occurs in other mammals, which would suggest it's a natural behavioral variant.


Aug-29-13 6:41 PM

i n b r e d

I have no idea why the censor is putting asterisks for that particular word.


Aug-29-13 6:41 PM

At a guess, I'd say Americans are less*******than other countries because people here come from so many different parts of the world and cousin marriage is so taboo in western culture. I don't think you can blame the problems we have on inbreeding. I doubt it would ever be common if it became legal, either.


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