ANNAPOLIS – Close-knit kin planning to tie the knot will have to wed elsewhere if two Montgomery County legislators in the Maryland General Assembly get their way.
Delegates Henry B. Heller, D-Montgomery, and Kumar Barve, D- Montgomery, want to make it illegal for first cousins to get married in Maryland.
If they’re successful, cupid-struck cousins could be fined $1,500, or worse yet, they could be banished from the state.
“We don’t need to play Russian roulette with genetics,” said Heller, a retired special education administrator.
The legality of first-cousin marriages in Maryland was reported by Capital News Service in December 1999.
Heller said he put the bill in, not as a joke, but more as an education initiative – he’s worried that children born to these parents could have learning disabilities.
“I assumed forever that it was against the law,” Heller said.
The law already forbids Maryland citizens from marrying their grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and various other permutations of relations. The new law simply adds “first cousins” to that list.
Which begs the question, how often do kissing cousins tie the knot in the Free State?
“We maybe do cousins one time a year,” said David K. Martin, a Garrett County Circuit Court Clerk, in an interview with Capital News Service last year.
And it’s likely that those cousins came from neighboring West Virginia or Pennsylvania, where the practice is outlawed. Capital News Service found nearly 70 percent of the marriage licenses issued in Garrett County went to non-Maryland residents last year.
In Annapolis, it’s apparently taboo as well.
“It’s very, very rare,” said Jessica Rorer, a license clerk in the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, who by law has to ask marriage license applicants if they are “in any way related.”
Researchers writing in the journal Nature Genetics found in 1993 that children born from first-cousin marriages were 4 percent more likely to die from genetic problems like Tay-Sachs disease, which kills children by age 5, and sickle cell anemia.
The problem, according to the experts, is that first cousins share one-eighth of their genes, putting their children at risk for inheriting any damaged genes shared by the parents.
Today’s high-tech medicine does offer some solace for loving cousins.
Dear Abby, in a column last August, offered this advice to a would-be cousin bride: Get genetic testing. With the testing, Abby said, the couple could “rule out the risk of defects” in their children.
Even with advances in genetic testing and medicine, Heller is unconvinced that these children won’t be learning-impaired, so after reading about the West Virginia couples coming to Maryland to get married last year, he decided to draft his bill.
Barve co-sponsored the bill for personal reasons.
“I believe genetic safety is very important,” he said, tongue-in- cheek. “(Heller) just had a big smile on his face and said, `Kumar, how about signing on with this bill?'”
His sponsorship could be related to the running joke Heller and Barve have about some “forks missing” from Barve’s family tree. The joke’s origin is unclear.
If their measure passes, on Oct. 1, Maryland will become the 29th state to ban first cousin marriages, Heller said, adding that previously married couples won’t be bound by the new law.
Heller said that while the bill won’t prevent cousins from driving across state borders to marry, it might make them think about genetic risks for their children.
So where will their bill leave love-struck blood relations? “They can always go to Virginia if they want to,” Heller said.
Virginia allows first cousin marriages – and, as they say, Virginia is for lovers.