Friday, March 18, 2011

Tough Questions: The Legality of Incest

This personal debate with myself started with a Young Turks clip on youtube a while back about Switzerland thinking about legalizing incest. Of course, when I first saw the title, my gut reaction was crazy fucking Swiss. Now I must admit I had the slightest biased against the Swiss government, simply with the issue I have on them portraying such a forward progressive attitude when in reality a lot of the government's policies are really backward, like their ridiculously xenophobic immigration policy and the fact that their women didn't have the right to vote until 1971. So initially, to me this seemed to fall into this category.

But then I watched the video. First of all, the law in no way condoned the rape of children or any such off-balance power dynamic. Pedophilia is outlawed in many different ways so that was not even the question. The question was whether or not someone should go to jail because of a fully consensual relationship between adult family members, like a brother and a sister.

Now I'm an only child, but still the idea of a brother and a sister going at it grosses me out. But still, does something that grosses me out have to be illegal? People that pee on each other gross me the fuck out too, but I'm not going to tell them that they should spend up to four years in jail because of it!

So why is it really illegal in the first place, in a country like the US?

There seem to be two prevailing arguments that people will automatically blurt out when confronted with such a seemingly odd and yet very simple question.

Excuse #1: It goes against people's Christian values

OK so apart from the obvious fact that Christians have absolutely no right to condemn incest considering that the Bible is riddled with it (see this video for a hilarious spoof on this), countries like the US and other European countries are supposed to have separation of church and state, so there should not be any laws made based on a religious belief or feeling. So in that case, this law would have no merit.

Excuse #2: The family members might have children, and those children would have a much higher chance of being born with malformations and genetic diseases.

Yes that is true. But here's my big problem with that argument: there is no other case in which it is illegal to have children based on such a risk. Let's go with an extreme example first. There is a drug on the market called Accutane, a very good drug for people with severe and disfiguring acne. The only problem is that, if taken while pregnant, this drug will lead to extremely severe birth defects, in which the child will be born with head, nervous system and heart defects, many times resulting in death. Of course female patients are warned of these enormous risks and told to use birth control while taking it. HOWEVER, if a woman gets pregnant, continues to take the drug and gives birth to the baby, causing it immense pain and suffering, there is no law to stop her. She will not spend one day in jail. So how can you say that there can be a law against a practice that might cause the birth of a child with congenital defects, when there is no law against a practice that will almost definitely produce a child with congenital defects? The argument simply does not hold water.

So the real question becomes this: legalize (or at least decriminalize) incest, or introduce more laws against practices that could lead to the birth of children with severe congential disorders?

At this point I have to point out the potential disaster of option 2. Yes incest can lead to birth defects, but you know what else can? Alcohol. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the number 1 cause of mental retardation in the States, and yet it is not illegal for a pregnant woman to have a drink. Well why stop there? Older women have a significantly higher chance of having a baby with Down's Syndrome, are we going to have an age limit on getting pregnant? It all gets a little too much for my taste. I say educate women on the risks involved, offer safe and legal abortion if it doesn't go to plan, and let adults make up their own adult minds. Pro choice all the way!

Well this was my logical train of thought. If you have any conflicting ones, or any other point to add or consider, do let me know!


  1. Not my area of expertise, but the odds of having children with severe congential disorders from an incestuous relationship tend to be alarmingly high, don't they? How many end up in state care, i.e. paid for by you and me? Your option 2. makes more sense to me. Or at least let's get rid of the probable outcomes..

    1. Honestly, it is not something that has been studied as much as, say, the probability of having a child with Down's Syndrome if you are over a certain age, due to obvious ethical issues, but the odds are not as alarmingly high as many may think based on what we know. One of the reasons people think it is increasingly high is because in high school one of the classic teaching examples in genetics used is the story of the royal russian familiy and hemophilia. Basically, since there was a lot of incest going on many of the children were hemophiliacs. However, this was because incest leads to a higher chance of "bad" recessive genes coming up, as it is more likely for both parents to be carriers. However the "bad" gene has to be there, and this aspect of increased risk disappears if both parties are healthy. As for the cost issue, I honestly don't think there are going to be so many people clamouring to have babies out of incest for this to have a significant economic impact (although I can't say that for sure)

    2. "Children of parent-child or sibling-sibling unions are at increased risk compared to cousin-cousin unions. Studies suggest that 20-36% of these children will die or have major disability due to the inbreeding." - Inbreeding, incest, and the incest taboo: the state of knowledge at the turn, Arthur P. Wolf and William H. Durham (Editors), Stanford University Press, 2005, page 3

      Yeah, yeah.. I admit. It's Wikipedia. I'll also admit I am way inferior to you knowledge wise, so I hope you'll allow me some crutches. I know a lot more than you about vagina, though, so don't get complacent.

      Compared to 2% in general population, I'd say it is significantly higher. As to how many siblings would suddenly immerse in incest, just because somebody abolished the law, I don't know.
      But, I imagine there might be significant increase in pregnancies if everybody said to their children, yeah, there's nothing wrong with having sex with your sibling..

      "One of the reasons people think it is increasingly high is because in high school one of the classic teaching examples in genetics used is the story of the royal russian familiy and hemophilia."
      Had no idea. For me (or us here) it's more "Deliverance" thing :), and even more, a situation in Sweden(I think), where due to closed society there was not enough of new genetic material introduced, which in turn caused certain recessive traits to appear way too frequently...

      What I am really saying, you can't let people make up their own minds just because they are over 18, or 21. And the other way around.

    3. I think you're undervaluing education enormously. Never in the decriminalization of incest (understand, at this time you can go to jail for years for having consensual sex with a family member in the US) did I suggest to tell everyone hey, its fine! Of COURSE you have an increased risk and having children should be very very strongly discouraged, just like it is with women that have to take teratogenic drugs like Accutane. I repeat myself, Accutane has a much higher chance of causing very severe birth defects than incest (also considering that a large portion of that 20-36% chance risk comes from recessive genes, doing a genetic screening and finding both parents healthy helps reduce that statistic) a woman who gets pregnant while taking Accutane is not thrown in prison.

      All I ask for is consistency. You may say hey, I think that when there is an over x% chance of severe birth defects it should be illegal to have kids and thats fine, thats your opinion and we can discuss that. The point of this post was to demonstrate that when it comes to incest laws there seems to be a "that's just icky" hypocritical factor in it.

      Last note "I know a lot more than you about vagina, though, so don't get complacent." o.O lol never thought anyone would say that to me! haha, are you a gynecologist or something?

  2. "I think you're undervaluing education enormously."
    Well, that's one possibility ;).

    Again, your plausible case against irresponsible women who drink, smoke, do drugs etc. does not justify somebody having "irresponsible sex" with their siblings.
    (On the "icky" issue, as a proud owner of the entire "It's a Mommy Thing" series I can only shrug. BTW, have a look at "Spanking the Monkey", see if it does anything for you).

    Down's Syndrome, which you've mentioned before - we can detect that one prenatally with 99.8% accuracy and abort the fetus, right? Unless we're Catholic.
    In addition, UK abortion rate of DS fetuses is 92%. Compared to number of religious people (of one denomination or another forbidding the above) you get a nice percentage of hypocrites. Another great achievement of education?
    In other words, x% is always a nice trap, but I opt for "case by case" decision.
    On a connected note, an old question is: why do we have all these checks and procedures when somebody wants to adopt a child, while anybody who is medically fit to procreate, is allowed to do so, no questions asked?!

    So, go ahead brothers and sisters (and Moms)!

    "are you a gynecologist or something?"
    Only by experience :)). Anyway, I'm sure I've handled :) more vaginae than you in my time.

    1. "I'm sure I've handled :) more vaginae than you in my time." - odd comment to make to a woman, but okay

      You can detect DS quite early on, yes and if you are lucky enough to live in a country where abortion is legal you can decide to abort that fetus if you want to. Of course the vast majority of genetic problems and defects are detectable at an abortion-appropriate time, so if people are inclined to abort a fetus that has such problems it is a non-issue.

      About the "case by case" basis the problem really becomes a ridiculous amount of very biased man power. So every time a couple wants a child they have to get all the appropriate genetic tests, bring their medical history to a government bureocrat who thus decides whether or not it is legal for them to have a child? And don't you agree that without an x% law of some kind it would be really up to that bureocrat's own morality and ethical opinion whether or not to grant them permission?

      Also if you have such a law in place, you're still not making any sort of case for incestuous relationships without having children (maybe the guy gets a vasectomy or whatever) to remain illegal. Are we at least agreeing that a "non-fertile" sexual incestuous relationship should be legal?

    2. "odd comment to make to a woman, but okay" Well, as far as I can tell, you're heterosexual?
      Would it be odd if I assume you've handled more penises compared to me handling only one?
      Can you at least admit I'm right on this one :)?

      "Case by case" - I meant more "issue by issue" basis. Though, given manpower, "case by case would be more ideal.
      Not that % is not a step forward, but.. It is just as arbitrary and inaccurate as the age limits.

      "And don't you agree that without an x% law of some kind it would be really up to that bureocrat's own morality and ethical opinion whether or not to grant them permission?"
      If you set it up to be, but why should you set it up like that? We have all kinds of tests to say whether someone is fit to be a parent (in all sorts of senses). And bureaucrats are there only to apply criteria set by experts, ideally.

      "Are we at least agreeing that a "non-fertile" sexual incestuous relationship should be legal?"
      I must be really poor at expressing myself. Which part of "On the "icky" issue, as a proud owner of the entire "It's a Mommy Thing" series I can only shrug." you read as me being against incestuous love and all the sex that would hopefully accompany it?