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On Ethical families

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William Crawley | 11:05 UK time, Tuesday, 8 April 2008

_44546584_deaves_afp466.jpgMeet John Deaves, 61, and his daughter Jenny, 39, pictured in a screen-grab from the Australian 60 Minutes programme. John and Jenny have revealed in a television interview that they are also partners, and have a nine-month-old child, Celeste, to whom John is both father and grandfather. John left the family home shortly after Jenny was born; they re-met in 2000, some 30 years later. They formed a relationship and had a previous child in 2001, who died from complications related to congenital heart disease shortly after birth.

Incest is illegal in Australia, as it is in the UK (under the Sexual Offences Act 2003), and last month a judge ordered the couple to stop having sex. There have been attempts in some European jurisdictions to legalise sibling-unions, but as yet only Sweden has introduced legislation permitting such marriages. In a number of jurisdictions, however, though marriage is not permitted, sex between siblings (so long as they are consenting adults) has been legalised. France, for example, abolished its incest laws 200 years ago.

The issues raised by this case are quite complex. Some religious groups will point to prohibitions of incest within their sacred texts (for example, Leviticus 18, which not only rules out sex with siblings, but also prohibits sex with near-in-laws such as aunts and uncles, and imposes death sentences for the sin of incest). Merely appealing to a sacred text in the context of a secular legal system is increasingly unpersuasive to many people. In any case, those texts need to be interpreted just as carefully as texts prohibiting divorce or inter-racial marriage.

Some argue that couples like John and Jenny have a human right to form a relationship, even if other members of society disapprove of that relationship. Society in general may disapprove of all kinds of relationships which are nevertheless legitimate. Others argue that these relationships present dangers to the children born to sibling-couples. Such children are six times more likely to die at birth than other children, and are significantly at risk of congenital illness. Those children who survive birth without physical harm are also likely to carry a significant psychological burden throughout life.

In response, couples could point out that some non-sibling-relationships face comparable medical issues because one or both parents may have a genetic disorder, yet the law does not criminalise those couples. If the basis for objection is merely the impact on children who issue from a union, what about the ethical status of the sibling-couples who decide to remain childless? And what degree of closeness (sometimes called "consanguinity") is ethical or unethical? Is forming a sexual relationship with a first (or second) cousin legitimate?

So, the basic question I am asking you today is this: Should the UK law be changed to permit siblings to consensually form adult sexual relationships (possibly even marriage)? This is a sensitive and serious question, so let's keep the comments on-topic and avoid unpleasantries.


  • 1.
  • At 02:05 PM on 08 Apr 2008,
  • Choccy wrote:

Interestingly, a recent article in Scientific American, based on an icelandic study, found that "kissing cousins have more kin".

"when third and fourth cousins procreate, they generally have scads of kids and grandkids (relative to everyone else)."
"Despite the general pattern for reproductive success favoring close kinship, couples that were second cousins or more closely related did not have as many children. The most likely reason, scientists say: offspring of such close relatives were likely to have much shorter life spans, because of the chance of inheriting harmful genetic mutations."

So of course this is strictly in biological reproductive terms and doesn't impact on the apparent social taboo.

The purpose of law is not to make illegal everything we find dislikable or even everything we find immoral. The purpose of law is to uphold the rights of everybody equally so that all peaceful, consented activities are protected. Unless you want to legislate against the other factors increasing risk of fetal abnormality too, then it's patently absurd to single out incest on that basis.

As Stephen Graham noted in a recent piece: "I think the problem with incestuous relationships is much more easily explained than by appeals to morality and social problems. It’s not a moral objection that motivates people, but rather the 'yuck factor.' People just don’t like the thought of incestuous relationships. [But] they have no victims, cause no harm and do not infringe upon the rights of other people."

  • 3.
  • At 07:33 PM on 08 Apr 2008,
  • Jen Erik wrote:

Do you not think that there might be a reason for the instinctive 'yuck'?

I'd have thought sex between family members is, for the most part, abusive. If you start legitimising familial sex - in these circumstances you can sleep with your brother - isn't the idea likely to hurt more people than it helps?

  • 4.
  • At 10:03 AM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • asha wrote:

If we legitimise such a relationship, in addition to the inherent health hazards, tell me with what safety or emotional/physical security can a child grow up within a family in today’s liberal society? What would the concept of family mean to a child and how long would Oedipus complex last and what would the meaning of father/ mother mean to the offspring?

  • 5.
  • At 11:26 AM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • dp wrote:

I'm sure most of us find the idea of incestuous relationships unsavoury and because of the complications involved - medically and psychologically it is right to condemn this behaviour, but as John says this shouldn't make it a legal matter.
It would be interesting to know if there is an increasing amount of incest or just an increase in the reporting of it. I don't think society’s morals are at risk as long as the general emotion that this engenders in the majority of us is one of revulsion. Peer pressure will do the job it always has in dictating morally acceptable behaviour.
Nobody is promoting this as a wise lifestyle choice – I think all it will ever be is an anomaly that we deal with as it occurs, which hopefully is quite rarely.

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