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Professor Spencer, an evolutionary zoologist, said these laws should be repealed, especially in America, where he said they were drafted in a way that discriminated against the rural poor and immigrants: "Neither the scientific nor social assumptions behind such legislation stand up to close scrutiny.Such legislation reflects outmoded prejudices about immigrants and the rural poor and relies on over-simplified views of heredity.Although first-cousin marriages are legal in Britain, there have been calls to ban the practice because of reports that it has resulted in a higher-than-average incidence of birth defects in certain immigrant communities where it is common and culturally acceptable.However, Professors Paul and Spencer said that the risk of congenital defects is about 2 per cent higher than average for babies born to first-cousin marriages – with the infant mortality about 4.4 per cent higher – which is on a par with the risk to babies born to women over 40."Women over the age of 40 have a similar risk of having children with birth defects and no one is suggesting they should be prevented from reproducing," said Professor Spencer, whose co-authored study is published in the online journal Public Library of Science.First-cousin marriages were once quite common in Europe, especially among the elite – Charles Darwin married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood – but that changed in the late 19th-century as people, especially women, became more socially mobile and the risks became more evident.Jesse James The Missouri outlaw married his first cousin Zerelda "Zee" Mimms in 1874 at the height of the James-Younger gang's reign.They had two children and remained together until Jesse's death, aged 34, 12 years later.
Opinions and practice vary widely across the world.
H G Wells The science fiction author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds married his first cousin Isabel Mary Wells in 1891 but left her after three years to marry one of his students, with whom he had two children.
Edgar Allan Poe The American gothic poet secretly married his 13-year-old first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm, in 1834. Johann Sebastian Bach In 1707 Bach married his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach and had seven of his 20 children with her.
There is no scientific grounding for it." In the UK, the issue came to the fore when the MP Phil Woolas, now the Immigration minister, claimed earlier this year that first-cousin marriages within Asian communities in Britain resulted in an increasing number of children with health problems.
"A lot of arranged marriages are with first cousins, and that produces lots of genetic problems in terms of disability [in children]," Mr Woolas said.