Pa. Cousins Try to Overcome Taboo of 'I Do'

"We just wanted to be together," says Eleanor Amrhein, with her first-cousin husband Donald Andrews Sr. at home in Altoona, Pa. "We knew what we were going to have to go through." (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 25, 2005

ALTOONA, Pa.

Love comes in at the eye, the poet William Butler Yeats wrote, and so it was for Donald Andrews: One look, and he knew that he was in love, intensely in love.

"I just could not stop looking at her," Andrews, 39, recalled, sitting in the late-day shade of a cafe umbrella he set up in the yard of his mobile home. "I just kept thinking: 'I'm going to get her. Someday, I'm going to get her and marry her.' "

He also knew, even as a mere lad of 14, that this never would be just any romance, because the object of that rapturous gaze happened to be his cousin Eleanor. And not a distant cousin, located somewhere in the far branches of the family tree. Their mothers were sisters. They knew their attraction -- she had felt it, too -- was taboo, and they kept it more or less a secret. That is, until last month, when they decided it was time to marry.

Turned away from the Blair County Courthouse because Pennsylvania law prohibits first-cousin marriages, Donald W. Andrews Sr. and Eleanor Amrhein, 37, crossed into Maryland to wed. Before they could think about a honeymoon, the newlyweds became the butt of jokes on the late-night talk shows.

But their marriage also cast a light on conflicting state laws surrounding the practice, and on such groups as Cousins United to Defeat Discriminating Laws Through Education (C.U.D.D.L.E.) and http://www.cousincouples.com/ , which cite new research to encourage acceptance of such unions.

"In God's eyes, we're all brothers and sisters. You can't tell your heart who to fall in love with," Amrhein said.

The incidence of consanguineous marriages has fallen in much of the industrialized world but remains common in some parts of Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. Maryland is one of 20 states that permit it, as does the District. (Six more allow such marriages only under certain conditions.)

Muddassir H. Siddiqui, shaikh of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Herndon, said the prophet Muhammad encouraged Muslims to marry non-relatives. But the practice of intermarrying remains in Islamic societies where tribal systems are strong, and it sometimes carries over to new immigrants in the United States. But not for long.

"The kids who are growing up here in America don't like it. They say, 'I'm not going to marry my cousin,' " Siddiqui said.

In general, studies bear out the taboo's wisdom, suggesting that marriages between people related by blood -- known as consanguinity -- produce a higher risk of genetic disorders in their offspring. It is especially true among closed or isolated communities, such as among some Arab communities in the Middle East, Hindus and others in southern India, Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe and the Amish in North America.

Yet a recent study suggested that though the relative risk of birth defects is higher among the offspring of first and second cousins, the absolute risk remains small in societies where inbreeding is rare. The study, published in the Journal of Genetic Counseling in April 2002, found that the risk of birth defects ran about twice as high -- about 6 to 8 percent -- for cousins, compared with about 3 to 4 percent for unrelated couples. In absolute terms, however, that still translated into odds of better than 90 percent that a child will be born without problems, the study found.


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