Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Incest just isn't a good idea - unless you stop breeding


This German couple (brother and sister) has been living together for six years. They managed to produce a number of children, some of which are seriously disabled. There's a harrowing nasty family background to the story, but that's the gist of it. No doubt many Germans will bicker when they hear that the couple lives in the former East, but truth be told, that's neither here nor there. Incest is illegal in Germany and there's up to three years in jail on the books for the couple. The main reason for such draconian measures is, of course, that reproduction between brother and sister has a 50% chance of serious disability caused by genetic abnormality.
So, no doubt, legally and ethically, what they did was bad. Well, I should be a bit more precise, their decision to reproduce was clearly wrong. There's several things worth thinking about, though.
For starters, why should a sister-brother couple be prosecuted and possibly jailed if they decided to live together, engage in sexual intercourse but do not reproduce (in the case under consideration the 'husband' has undergone a vasectomy and won't therefore be able to impregnate his 'wife' and sister again). They, quite possibly so, should be punished for producing disabled children, but I am less certain that they should be prevented from living together if that is what makes them happy - as long as they do not reproduce any longer.
The other issues is that we do not punish parents whose off-spring suffers similarly high risks of genetic illness (ie a genetically not linked couple whose kids suffer a 50% or higher risk to develop cystic fibrosis will not be threatened with jail if they go ahead and reproduce anyway).
It seems to me that we are not consistent, as a society, in our response to the issue under consideration. If the primary reason against incest is that we're concerned (rightly so) about genetic abnormality and disease among the off-spring of a sister-brother couple, we should deploy the same yard stick in other cases where the risk of genetic illness is similarly high. We are not doing this at this point in time. This strikes me as inconsistent.

1 comment:

  1. I really like what you've said here and I completely agree that we've got an inconsistency here. I do think that any partners whose breeding holds a high risk of genetic defect should be strongly encouraged towards sterilisation or other strong protection against pregnancy and reproduction. I'm not sure a jail term is ever appropriate, siblings or no. I have no problem with sibling love in principle, especially if they were estranged somehow, but there is something that seems a bit unhealthy about siblings who have grown up together closely because often the older sibling will have a position of responsibility similar to a parent, and in that case whether they are genetically related or not it is a bad idea. I don't think there's any use in prosecuting both parties, however. You don't mention homosexual sibling relationships, which of course don't generate offspring but presumably face the same legal issues?

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