Friday, April 01, 2005

Birth Defects and Legal Prohibitions on Incest

Over the last 40 or so years, American courts have increasingly ruled in favor of a very broad interpretation of individual sexual rights. Or, stated somewhat differently, the courts seem to see less and less justification for the government to intervene in citizen's sexual matters on the grounds that their behavior may have consequences for other people not directly and immediately involved in the sexual act itself.

This is probably due to the fact that any particular sex act has, truly, grown less consequential. For instance, modern antibiotics have basically eliminated sexually transmitted diseases as any sort of major public health problem. Compare that to the mass absenteeism and morbidity that used to be caused by STDs, and which was the common lot of anyone not strictly in a monogamous sexual relationship before the advent of these wonder drugs. Similarly, modern birth control methods now mean that sex is detached in a way never before possible from procreation. While sex in general matters, individual sex acts--and thus acts of sex among individuals--are simply much less weighty than they used to be.

This means that pretty soon, there will be a battle fought out in either the legislatures or the courts (more likely the courts) about whether or not society really has any interests in prohibiting consentual adult incest. The major argument right now is that it might lead to birth defects. But in a society that allows for abortions even up to the moment of conception (partial birth abortion, anyone?), and in which you can screen for most developmental anomalies in utero, this is something of a red herring. But even more of this justification for prohibiting incest would be removed if it were found out that incestuous couplings just didn't really cause all that many birth defects.

Along those lines, please check out this very nice article by law professor Joanna Grossman on the legal implications of a new study that shows that cousin couples have rates of birth defects among their children that are not much different from those of non-related couples. If this research holds up, there will be very little for opponents of cousin incest to stand on legally.

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