Pa. Cousins Try to Overcome Taboo of 'I Do'
To Bypass Ban, Relatives Wed in Md. After Years of Seeking Acceptance

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.

"And that generally wasn't realized by people. They thought if you marry your cousin, the risk was much, much higher," said Arno Motulsky, a professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington who co-authored the study.

When the study appeared, however, news coverage often emphasized the low risk without noting that such marriages pose less danger because they are rare.

"They went completely over the other way and said there's no risk. That's not true," Motulsky said. "Persons should get full counseling, full advice about what they are getting into, what the problems are, and then it should be left to them."

For Andrews and Amrhein, childbearing was not an issue: They said they did not plan to have any children. Instead, they just want to be together.

Neither revealed their secret to anyone until about seven years ago. They began to date after her marriage ended in divorce and his longtime relationship broke up.

Their families recoiled at the news. When the two began living together, her family disowned her for a time. She was no longer welcome at Sunday dinners. They refused to take her telephone calls. Friends dredged up Bible passages to scold them.

They settled down in their blue-and-white mobile home with three dogs, a cat, two guinea pigs named Beavis and Butt-Head, and an iguana that loves to eat kiwi.

Andrews collects disability payments from the government. Amrhein works at the courtesy desk at Wal-Mart.

"I tell people I married her for the health benefits and the Wal-Mart discount card," Andrews said, only half-joking.

She slapped his thigh.

"Yeah," she said, eyes rolling.

They kid each other a lot and share many interests, such as camping and fishing. They agree to disagree on other things. He smokes Jacks 100's; she prefers Marlboros. He hunts. She loves animals.

When she tunes in to shows that have what he calls "that sappy stuff" -- "Friends," say, or "Little House on the Prairie" -- he exits to head to another television. He gushes at the thought of walking into Red Lobster and picking out the plumpest one in the tank.

"Eck," she said. And don't ask her about eating groundhog.

"It smells like a pork chop frying. Tastes like chicken," he said, helpfully.

Six years ago, he proposed to her at the jewelry case in Wal-Mart after they spied a pair of wedding bands on sale.

"I said, 'Are you prepared to go through the Hell we're going to go through?' " he said.

Yes, she said, accepting the engagement. But because of a host of concerns, they locked their rings away until last month. After a Pennsylvania court clerk refused to grant a marriage license, the couple challenged the refusal in open court, as allowed by law, and lost.

So on March 28 -- Amrhein already has to prompt her newlywed to remember the exact date -- they crossed the state line. In a civil ceremony attended by his mother and a niece and nephew, the cousins held hands before a justice of the peace in Calvert County and exchanged vows.

"We just wanted to be together," Amrhein said. "We knew what we were going to have to go through. It would be nice if what came out of this is, it would help other people in our situation."

Staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company