When Cousins Wed

This story was originally broadcast Aug. 6, 2004

Everyone wants to fall in love; it's the stuff of movies, songs and dreams. But what if you fall in love with your cousin?

For one couple, romance bloomed among two cousins who met as adults after a 20-year absence.

"We ran into each other, at a family reunion," Christie Smith told ABCNEWS. "And we just struck it off."

Smith said marrying her cousin Mark brought concerns.

"It was very scary, at first. I thought that it was something that was very wrong," said Smith.

Einstein Kissed His Cuz

Cousins who fall in love have a right to voice concerns. After all, marrying a cousin just isn't done, right?

At least that's what we're taught to believe. Only primitive people who live in isolated places marry cousins, and it's dangerous and leads to creating stupid children.

Or does it? A new study reveals the genetic risks associated with this type of pairing are not as great as once believed.

And consider this — Albert Einstein's parents were cousins, and he married his cousin, too. FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt were second cousins, so were Prince Albert and Queen Victoria and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was briefly married to a second cousin.

In America, marrying your cousin is legally allowed in 26 states and every year about 200,000 cousins wed. Worldwide, it's much more common — 20 percent of all married couples are cousins. In some Middle Eastern countries, almost half of all marriages are to cousins.

Those Who Say 'I Do'

But in America, cousins who find love also find public resistance.

"The overbearing concept is that, you know, 'cousins can't get married,' " said Brian Wagner, who has been married to his cousin Caren for 12 years. His dad and his wife's mom are brother and sister.

"Some people see it as 'inbreeding,' or, you know, 'incest,' or something terrible like that," said Wagner.

Caren said she didn't plan on their shared future, although her mom noticed they always liked each other.

"They played together, they fought over toys together. And they just had a happy good relationship as kids will," said Pat Bradfield. "They were real kissin' cousins."

They initially grew up in the same area, but Brian's family then moved away. Years later when Caren decided to visit, their lives changed.

"When she showed up at the airport terminal and come off the plane, it's just like everything came rushing back again," said Brian.

"It developed beyond a 'friendship,' into a 'OK, do you want to get married this weekend or next?' " said Caren.

Her mom says the idea "floored" her a bit, but since she couldn't stop the marriage she was leery of voicing opposition in fear of losing contact with her daughter. Instead, she offered some advice.

"In a marriage such as you're contemplating, you have to remember that you could divorce your husband but you can't divorce the whole family," said Pat.

They did lose one friend who, Caren said, they just didn't hear from anymore after they announced their union.

Legality of the Marriage

Twenty-four states still forbid cousin marriages. The United States is the only western country in the world where these laws still exist. "A lot of these laws have been on the books forever and they have just not gotten changed," said Brian.

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