Saudi Arabia Awakes to the Perils of Inbreeding
Across the Arab world today an average of 45 percent of married couples are related, according to Dr. Nadia Sakati, a pediatrician and senior consultant for the genetics research center at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. In some parts of Saudi Arabia, particularly in the south, the rate of marriage among blood relatives ranges from 55 to 70 percent, among the highest rates in the world, according to the Saudi government.
Does this come as a surprise to anyone? Didn't think so...
Widespread inbreeding in Saudi Arabia has produced several genetic disorders, Saudi public health officials said, including the blood diseases of thalassemia, a potentially fatal hemoglobin deficiency, and sickle cell anemia. Spinal muscular atrophy and diabetes are also common, especially in the regions with the longest traditions of marriage between relatives. Dr. Sakati said she had also found links between inbreeding and deafness and muteness.
And don't forget various mental disorders...
Saudi health authorities, well aware of the enormous social and economic costs of marriage between family members, have quietly debated what to do for decades. Now, for the first time, the government, after starting a nationwide educational campaign to inform related couples who intend to marry of the risk of genetic disease, is planning to require mandatory blood tests before marriage and premarital counseling.
"Mrs. Abdulhassan, I hate to tell you this, but you and your old man both carry the gene for stupidity and for religious fanaticism. I recommend against having children. Maybe you should get a puppy instead?"
Health officials and genetic researchers here say there is no way to stop inbreeding in this deeply conservative Muslim society, where marrying within the family is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.
"Yup. Me, an' Sis, and Baby Gus..."
Today, when most unions are still arranged by parents, marrying into wealth and influence often means marrying a relative. Social lives are so restricted that it is virtually impossible for men and women to meet one another outside the umbrella of an extended family. Courtships without parental supervision are rare.
That's why they result so often in pregnancy, followed by stoning...
Among more educated Saudis, marrying relatives has become less common and younger generations have begun to pull away from the practice. But for the vast majority, the tradition is still deeply embedded in Saudi culture.
"But I don't want to marry Mahmoud!"
"Why not?"
"'Cuz he's my brother!"
"He's only your half brother."
"Well, okay, then."
Statistics on the prevalence of genetically based diseases and the extent to which they are a direct result of marriage between close relatives — second cousins or closer — are scarce or unreliable because many Saudi parents raise their disabled children in obscurity, ashamed to seek services. Not all marriages between close relatives produce children with genetic disorders. In fact, most do not. But testing could identify couples who test positive for serious diseases. Under a fatwa issued by the World Islamic League in 1990, Islam permits abortions up to 120 days after conception if an unborn child tests positive for a serious disorder.
Yep. A fatwah. That oughta do it...

Posted by: Fred Pruitt 2003-05-01