Call to discourage first-cousin marriages

A LEADING expert in family law will this week call for a "vigorous" public campaign against marriages between cousins.

Baroness Deech, a cross-bench member of the House of Lords, will speak out amid growing concern over the number of children being born with birth defects in the Pakistani community.

Doctors believe the genetic problems stem from the practice of allowing first cousins to wed, which is relatively common among some Muslims from south Asia.

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As many as 55 per cent of British Pakistanis are married to their first cousin, a figure that rises to as high as 75 per cent in Bradford, west Yorkshire. Just 3 per cent of all children in Britain are of Pakistani origin, but a third of all children with recessive genetic disorders come from the ethnic group.

Deech, in a speech planned for this week, will say: "Human rights and religious and cultural practices are respected by not banning cousin marriage. But those involved must be made aware of the consequences."

Deech, who chaired the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for eight years, believes that adults who carry genetic abnormalities should be screened and that first cousins who are married should have their first children by in-vitro fertilisation, to allow for checks for abnormalities.

Three-quarters of children born with birth defects in Bradford are believed to have parents who are first cousins.

Deech will effectively reopen a debate started five years ago by MP Ann Cryer, whose Yorkshire community is home to many Pakistanis. Yesterday, she said: "We have been told to be careful, as discussing (this issue] could cause deep offence. Blow that. If people wish to be offended, they will be offended."

Muslim scholars also welcomed Deech's intervention. Islamic teaching discourages marriages between cousins. Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "Education has an important role to play in this area."