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Debate: Legalization of adult incest

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Should incest between consenting adults be legal?

Background and context

Incest generally refers to any sexual activity between closely related persons (often within the immediate family). The type of sexual activity and the nature of the relationship vary in different societies.
Some societies consider it to include only those who live in the same household, or who belong to the same clan or lineage; other societies consider it to include "blood relatives"; other societies further include those related by adoption or marriage.

This pro/con article focuses mainly on the public debate surrounding whether incest between consenting adult blood relatives, most notably brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons all in adulthood. The debate has received significant attention in recent years with the trial and imprisonment of multiple couples for incest. The debate has also receive some legitimacy among scholarly circles with, for example, an extensive article appearing in the June 2006 Harvard Law Review in favor of legalizing incest between consenting adults.[1]

Multiple questions frame the debate: Do consenting adults have a right to engage in whatever relationships they choose? Do incestuous relationships often violate the principle of consent due to complicated past family dynamics? Can incest be morally sound, possibly in cases of genuine love between incestuous couples? Should social norms of morality even determine the legality of incest? Does incest harm the institution of marriage? Are there significant risks for the offspring of incestuous couples? Do incestuous relationships follow from disproportionate power-dynamics within a family? Do the overall pros and cons suggest that legalizing adult incest is good public policy?

See Wikipedia's article on incest for greater background:

Contents

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Power abuse: Can adult family members engage in sexual activity from a position of equal power?

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Yes

  • Incest has same potential for power-abuse as other relationships Banning incest because of the potential for the abuse of power in family relationships is wrong-headed. The potential for the abuse of power exists in all relationships: between boss and worker, between clever and not so clever. We do not try to control what should happen in those examples, because they are adults, free to live their own lives and make their own decisions. Should the state intervene to stop the union of the Nobel Prize winner and her secretary, or the physically strong construction worker and the physically week office administrator, because of a potential ‘abuse of power’? No. Neither should it be the case with incestuous relationships. Additionally, there is no defined power relationship--in any other aspect of life--between a father and adult daughter or between a mother and adult son. As they are legally equals in all other aspects of life there is no reason to treat them as anything other than equals in the area of sexuality.
  • Incest law should not be framed by bad-apple scenarios. The case against incestuous couples relies too much on speculation about worst-case scenarios in which poor judgment and corrupt morals lead to abuse in the relationship. Yet, most of these problems have nothing to do with incestuous couples specifically and could apply to any family. In any family, one family member could be abusive. In any relationship, one member could abuse power and possibly force another member into sex without consent. It is wrong, therefore, to cite abuse in incestuous families as an example of the corruption of incest itself, when such abuse is consistent with what occurs in traditional families as well. It is important to, instead of considering bad-apple scenarios, to consider if incest can be just in isolation of unrelated issues. This means that the best-case scenarios (in which all else is equal) should be considered for the purpose of developing incest law. This reveals that there are many successful, happy, and fairly ordinary incestuous couples and families living in society today, and that a ban is unnecessary.
  • Consensual adult incest should not be confused with abusive incest It is easy to confuse adult incest with abusive forms of incest; such as intragenerational incest between a father an his 14 year-old daughter. Incest between consenting adults is much different than these abusive forms of incest, which are wrong and will always remain unlawful. The proposal is only to legalize consensual adult incest, keeping all other laws in place to check abusive, non-consensual acts.


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No

  • Incest frequently involves abuse of power in family relationships Many sibling relationships involve considerable power. Much older siblings have power over younger siblings. When one or both parents die or are ill or are often away from the family unit, an older sibling often takes on a pseudo-parental role in nurturing and caring for the younger. This is more important than other power relationship parallels, such as boss-worker, since in this one children can be groomed so that when they reach adulthood their impression of sexuality is distorted to the degree that they cannot but approve of incest. The age restriction may prevent penetrative sex between siblings when one or both are underage (but given that it will be seen as less serious in an environment in which incest is approved, even this is less certain). However, kissing and cuddling (in a different context, the natural displays of familial affection) can be used over years on an underage person to ensure that their view of sexuality is firmly based on a sexualised family environment and to ensure that, by the time they do come ‘of age,’ that they are firmly on the path to commit incest.
  • Legalizing incest increases the risks of abuse. Those most likely to take up the ‘opportunities’ offered by this change in the law live in remote, isolated places where abuse is even more likely to be successfully concealed. The recent case of repeated sexual abuse on the island of Pitcairn demonstrates the dangers of small societies determining their own moral agenda. This kind of abuse becomes much more likely when the state sanctions some of the acts concerned, as the argument becomes about lack of consent, which is much more difficult to prove, than about incest itself.
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Consent: Do consenting adults have a right to engage in incest?

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Yes

  • Consenting adults have a right to engage in incest Incestuous defendants in a 2007 case in Cincinnati, USA wrote: "Our view of Lawrence is a fairly narrow one, that there is a Constitutional right under the 14th Amendment's due process clause that says private consensual activity between adults cannot be criminal."[2]
  • State has no role in private sexual affairs such as incest The individual and family should generally have the ability to choose its own course. In general, if consenting individuals choose to start a family together (incestuously) this private family affair should be allowed to occur free of government intervention.


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No

  • Adults taught incest as children cannot fully consent Kissing and cuddling (in a different context, the natural displays of familial affection) can be used over years on an underage person to ensure that their view of sexuality is firmly based on a sexualised family environment and to ensure that, by the time they do come ‘of age,’ that they are firmly on the path to commit incest. Therefore, an adult raised in an incestuous environment is not really a consenting incestuous adult, but rather an individual indoctrinated in incestuous behavior without full consent.
  • Consenting adults have no right to engage in harmful incest. Consent is not the only criteria for the legality of actions. Consenting adults do not have a right to act in ways that harm others. Much of the case demonstrates the harms involved, such as the risks for the offspring, for the family institution, and for social sustainability in general.
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Morality: Is adult incest generally morally sound or corrupt?

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Pro

  • Incest is taboo without a clear rationale as to why Incest has been bashed for centuries by society. But, beyond repeating the mantra that it is "unnatural and contrary to the history and tradition of the family institution", there is not much substantive argument surrounding why incest between consenting adults is supposed to be wrong. Yes, reproduction between blood relatives does contain some risks, but is there a well-founded argument against its morality beyond this? Not really. If two individuals deeply love one another, why is wrong for them to follow their desire?
  • Incest must be harmful not just "immoral" to be banned There are many things that are immoral that are still legal. Adultery, for instance, is typically legal, although it is widely considered immoral. Similarly, incest cannot be illegal merely because it is considered immoral. It must have some significant harmful effect, for which this side argues it does not.
  • Citizens must tolerate "immorality" such as incest. The case against incest is based on an application of biblical rules that have little to do with today’s inclusive and tolerant principles. Modern citizens must learn to live with people who perform deeds they consider abhorrent, but which do not directly harm other individuals. Citizens can certainly protest, but to ban outright a certain practice on the simple basis of "immorality" is unacceptable in modern democracies.
  • Incestuous couples have a right to follow their own morals. The state and society should not engage itself too deeply in setting moral standards for other citizens. Morality is often in the eye of the beholder, particularly when it comes to love and sex. Incestuous couples should be left alone to follow their own moral code.


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Con

  • Magnitude of moral abhorrence of incest justifies ban. The case against incest is certainly not merely biblical, but it exists in almost all religions for the very sound reason that it it undermines so many fundamental values and morals in society: the integrity of the family institution, the integrity of the institution of marriage, the safety of children from abuse and molestation, the health of offspring, among other tangible and moral damages discussed below. There is more than a ‘yuck’ factor to this: but the instinctive ‘yuck’ we feel for some things is often rooted in the fact that it is dangerous or bad for us/those around us. The wisdom of the ages should not be ignored. The overall moral abhorrence of incest justifies society setting a clear moral line against it with a ban.
  • Inbreeding is immorally bad for society over time. The children of incestuous parents are much more likely to see incest as acceptable and to, therefore, engage in incest themselves. The problem with this is that second-generation incest is even more likely to involve medical and genetic problems. Third-generation incest is even more risky, and so on. Therefore, incest is an unsustainable social model. To this extent, a ban on incest is good social, public policy. And, to the extent that incest is bad for society and its collective interests, incest is immoral.


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Evolution: Is incest consistent with evolutionary principles?

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Pro

  • Incest is found in the animal kingdom, so is natural. Incest is fairly common in the animal kingdom. In human history, incest has been common, found prominently as far back as Ancient Egypt. This all suggests that incest is fairly "natural", undermining the argument that it is unnatural and immoral.


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Con

  • Incest wrongly impairs natural human evolutionary progress Incest is against the natural order of things. People are not supposed to mate with blood relatives, but with people from a different family. This is meant to ensure the random mixing of genes that enables variation within human offspring and the potential for evolution. Diverging from this natural order is wrong on many levels. It impairs the natural evolutionary process, which weakens human evolutionary progress and improvement. Symbolically, it diminishes the respect we place on the natural sexual order that has enabled humans to become the sacred creatures that we are. Similarly, for people of faith, it diminishes the value placed on the sexual order created by God.
  • Incest taboo is due to evolutionary inclination for variation In his book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Charles Darwin has a chapter "On the Good Effects of Crossing, and On the Evil Effects of Inbreeding." - "Although there seems to be no strong inherited feeling in mankind against incest, it seems possible that men during primeval times may have been more excited by strange females than by those with whom they habitually lived. . . . If any such feeling formerly existed in man, this would have led to a preference for marriages beyond the nearest kin, and might have been strengthened by the offspring of such marriages surviving in greater numbers."[3]


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Family: Is incest consistent with the family unit?

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Yes

  • Many things are bad for the family, but not banned like incest David Archard. Sexual consent. Limits of Consensuality" (Book). 1997 - "The problem with regarding such alleged harms [to the family] as supplying a sufficient condemnation of incest are two fold. First, it is possible to conceive of practices or sets of circumstances which do the same sorts and amounts of damage to the family but which do not appear to be subject to the same degree of extreme moral criticism. Consider, for example, intra-familial violence, parental subscription to very rigid or fundamental religious views, extreme poverty, ready toleration of and participation in criminality, excessive parental coldness or emotional indifference, and so on."[4]
  • Adult incest can occur after family years David Archard. Sexual consent. Limits of Consensuality" (Book). 1997 - "The problem with regarding such alleged harms as supplying a sufficient condemnation of incest are twofold. [...] Second, we are left with the cases of siblings separated at or shortly after birth who, on being reunited, experience overpowering feelings of mutual attraction which may lead them into sexual intimacy. Such cases (and there are very occasional cases of parent-child incest along the same lines) are rare but well documented. It does not seem that any straightforward appeal to the damage that these incestuous relationships will or might do to the institution of the family is open to those who insist that, nevertheless, they remain deeply immoral."[5]
  • Incest does not affect other families. It is absurd to suggest that the existence of incestuous couples undermines the wider family model. The vast majority of families would experience none of the issues important to the few people this issue affects.
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No

  • Incest undermines the family and its nurturing relationships The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in a 2007 incest case: "The state has a legitimate interest in prohibiting incestuous relations and in protecting the family unit and family relationships."[6] Incest undermines these traditional, nurturing relationships by opening the door to sexual tensions, jealousies, and animosities.
Adam Graham. "Are you ready for incest?" Renew America. October 28, 2004 - "In the end, we have laws against incest because society made a moral judgment. We've said that family life is not to be subject to sexual tensions. We believe a daughter should feel comfortable spending time alone talking with her father without having to worry that her father is just another man interested in her body. We've said that the relationship between a brother and sister is to be one of love and trust. We've understood that if we allow incest, families as we know it will cease to exist."
  • Incest laws enable appropriate family intimacy without suspicion. Incest bans allow children and family members to interact in ordinary and intimate ways (ie, sitting on laps, hugging, kissing on the cheeck) without raising undue suspicions or concerns. It provides a protective line that allows for ordinary intimacy, but ensures it doesn't go too far.[7]
  • The state often intervenes in family affairs; incest ban OK. The idea that family life is totally private is wrong: the government intervenes frequently in family life when there is a compelling interest to do so: when parents take drugs or neglect or abuse their children, or when people are violent. The government, therefore, has the right to intervene in families to stop incest, which is demonstrated to be damaging and hazardous.
  • Incest can seclude people within their family network. Professor Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that an incest prohibition is a necessary mechanism for building society by forcing people to form alliances outside of narrow family groups.[8]


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Children: Are the offspring of incestuous couples healthy or at-risk?

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Pro

  • Risks for children of incest are tolerably low The risks involved in blood relatives having children are vastly overstated, normally by people that oppose incest for spurious “moral” reasons. First cousins, for example, are, according to a 2002 article in the New York Times, 93% likely to give birth to an entirely ordinary child, compared to roughly 96% for the general population.[9]
  • Incest is not easily determined as cause of defect. Conclusively determining, beyond a reasonable doubt, that incest is the cause of a specific defect in the child of an incestuous couple is very difficult. This makes it difficult to base a ban on incest on the presumption that incest is the cause of defects.


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Con

  • Children of incest are at greater risk of disorders It is well known that the risks involved in blood relatives procreating are enormous. Deformities are common and genetic disorders are much more likely than in the population at large. The state has a compelling interest in preventing such suffering and the practice of incest that causes it. It is compassionate to the deformed/disordered child, the parents that must suffer through the experience, and the society that must provide for the extra health requirements of such a child.
  • Inbreeding is increasingly risky and unsustainable over time The children of incestuous parents are much more likely to see incest as acceptable and to, therefore, engage in incest themselves. The problem with this is that second-generation incest is even more likely to involve medical and genetic problems. Third-generation incest is even more risky, and so on. Therefore, incest is an unsustainable social model.
  • Incest is more dangerous than other at-risk reproduction. It is true that risks are run by other reproducing couples in society. But the magnitude of the risk is for the most part much smaller than those involved in incestuous reproduction.
  • Legal incest would add risks on top of other risky mating. The existence of other couples that run genetic risks is an argument against legalizing incestuous relationships: the medical system already has enough trouble dealing with the offspring created by couples with conditions society doesn’t condemn. Why add more ill offspring on top of this, and for the condemned practice of incest?
  • Children of incest are a greater burden on society/taxpayers Because the children of incest couples are more likely to suffer from illness and deformity, they are more likely to become a burden on the health system and thus the taxpayers of a society. The state has a compelling interest in protecting other members of society from such a burden.
  • Incest offspring suffer from social/moral rejection. The offspring of incest often suffer from widespread rejection or mistreatment in society. On the playground, children of incest are likely to be bullied. With attitudes on incest unlikely to change, it is better that a ban help prevent such unfair episodes from occurring in the first place.
  • Incest offspring suffer from confusion about their identity. The offspring of incestuous couples have a difficult time understanding and identifying with their ancestry. This leads to unanswerable questions such as "who am I?", which often requires therapy to resolve.


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Sex: Does incest fit with the proper purpose of sex?

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Pro

  • Legality of incest cannot rely on whether couples reproduce Incestuous couples often do not have any children. It is wrong, therefore, to ban incest on the basis that it is bad for children of incest. Reproduction between incestuous couples could possibly be banned (a separate debate), but not all forms of incest on the basis of preventing "risky" reproduction.
  • Sex is for pleasure as much as reproduction; incest is OK. Humans very rarely have sex for the purpose of procreation. Most often, they have sex for mutual pleasure. This is perfectly moral. Incestuous couples that choose merely to have sex for pleasure, therefore, are doing nothing wrong by not having sex for the purpose of reproduction.
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Con

  • Sex is for reproduction; incest cannot be only about sex. Sexual intercourse is done to produce children and not simply to get your rocks off. Legally allowing incestuous sex (but not reproduction) sends the wrong message regarding what sex should be for - reproduction only.


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Love: Can incestuous couples really love one another?

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Pro

  • Incestuous couples love one another the same as other couples You can’t help with whom you fall in love. As a matter of fact, many adult siblings and fathers and daughters strongly profess their love for one another. Why should this kind of love be taboo? Why should these people not be able to deepen their relationship? Patrick Stubing, who is engaged in an incestuous relationship with his sister in Germany (where incest is illegal), said: "We've done nothing wrong. We are like normal lovers. We want to have a family."[10]
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Con

  • Sense of immorality undermines the "love" between incest couples. Incestuous couples often report, "I feel that I am in love with my sister, but I know that I am doing something wrong". While they may have convinced themselves that they are in love, something nags at them that diminishes their love below "true love".
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Increasing incest: Would legalization increase incest?

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Pro

  • Legalization would not increase incest. Joachim Renzikowski, a criminal law professor at Germany's Halle University, quoted in a 2007 BBC article - "I doubt equally that getting rid of our incest law will result in any measurable increase in cases. Our moral guardians don't need to get too worked up about this."[11]


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Con

  • Legalization would approve incest and increase it. Legalizing incest does more than acknowledge it – it legitimises it with a mark of state approval. The costs of legitimizing incest in this way are quite large for the state and society. First, by making the practice appear acceptable, the state actually may encourage incestuous relationships within families between brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, mothers and son, and between cousins. It makes it possible for individuals to move from considering incest as entirely unacceptable to considering it a socially-acceptable possibility. This significant shift will doubtlessly open incestuous doors that were once closed, encourage experimentation in incest, increase cases of abusive incestuous relations, and a general increase the number of incestuous relationships. Such a result is undesirable, so the state has a direct interest in preventing it by maintaining a ban.
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Enforcement: Is a ban on incest unenforceable?

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Pro

  • Incest cannot be successfully banned It is impossible to effectively ban incest. Couples have been engaging in the practice for centuries. This is partly because family members have always been capable of falling deeply in love. The love felt between many incestuous couples could not possibly be broken by any law banning it. And enforcing such a ban is simply not possible, as it is fairly easy to hide an incestuous relationship. Such a failure to enforce the law undermines the law itself.
  • Sending law-abiding incestuous couples to prison looks bad. Most incestuous couples are just like other people, abide by all laws, pay their taxes, and perform good deeds. Sending these people to prison for their convictions to love another human being, who happens to be a blood relative, looks bad for the state and the law.


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Con

  • Difficult enforcement is no cause for legalizing incest. The law should not consider the expediency of enforcement. The question is only whether a law is just. In the case of incest, a ban is just for the reasons presented here, so is justified. It does not matter that enforcement of the law may be difficult or appear harsh on those that violate the law. If individuals decide that they are above the law and able to violate it, they should be punished in the same way as any other individual.


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Society: Is an incest ban bad public policy?

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Pro

  • Incestuous minority deserves protections. It is true that very few people are affected by an incest ban, but minorities deserve protection just like everyone else, and often need it more.
  • Legal incest affords existing couples better treatment/aid. It is foolish to suggest that incest does not occur already. If we acknowledge this reality, we can ensure that those currently involved in it can obtain those things everyone else can get – counselling for their relationship, for example. As it is currently illegal, people are unwilling to seek such aid. If the proposition is to be believed, these individuals particularly need such help.
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Con

  • Inbreeding is unsustainable for society, so is bad law. The children of incestuous parents are much more likely to see incest as acceptable and to, therefore, engage in incest themselves. The problem with this is that second-generation incest is even more likely to involve medical and genetic problems. Third-generation incest is even more risky, and so on. Therefore, incest is an unsustainable social model. To this extent, a ban on incest is good social, public policy. And, to the extent that incest is bad for society and its collective interests, incest is immoral.


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Slippery slope: Are there "slippery slopes" involved with incest law?

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Pro


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Con

  • Legal incest opens slippery slope to legalizing other behavior If the proposition are right, and there is fundamentally nothing wrong with incestuous relationships, and that many involving those over the age of consent contain true consensual love between two people, then why exclude the possibility of father/daughter, mother/son, father/son, bestiality, and polygamous relationships? If all the principles they espouse are right, wouldn't forbidding these other relationships be arbitrary, unequal treatment, and discriminatory? Once you open the gate to incest, many other gates will have to be opened as well.


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Religion: What are the religious pros and cons in this debate?

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Pro

  • Bible supports incest and embraces its practice "And Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living." (Genesis 3:20). "Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, 'I have acquired a man from the LORD.'" (Genesis 4:1) "And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch." (Genesis 4:16) "'Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the lineage of our father.'” So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. It happened on the next day that the firstborn said to the younger, 'Indeed I lay with my father last night; let us make him drink wine tonight also, and you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve the lineage of our father.' Then they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father" (Genesis 19:32-36).


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Con

  • Religion's impact on morals must be considered in incest ban. While it is true that there is a separation between church and state and that religion cannot play a direct role in the law on incest, this does not mean that it cannot be weighed for its significance in creating the moral foundations of modern society. Indeed, the moral beliefs of a public are relevant in considering what should be morally tolerable and morally intolerable under the law. Therefore, to the extent that the Bible (and other faiths) plays a role in modern moral thought, the Bible's condemnation of incest should favor a ban.
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Homosexuality analogy: Is legalizing incest analogous to legalizing homosexuality?

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Pro

  • Banning adult incest is analogous to banning homosexuality. Once, we condemned homosexuality as "unnatural" and "immoral". Now we know that that was wrong and that many suffered as a consequence of that prejudice. Should incest suffer the same fate? No. We should realize that our opinions will become more tolerant over time to incest, and we should move to increase such tolerance sooner than later.


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Con

  • Homosexuality is more benign than incest on the family. Homosexuality does not have a direct impact on how family members interact with one-another. Incest, conversely, allows for disruptive sexual interaction between parents and their offspring as well as between siblings. This fundamentally damages the traditional nurturing function of family. For this reason, legal homosexuality and even gay marriage do not set a precedent for legalizing adult incest or incestuous marriage.
  • Incestuous relationships are more prone to abuse than homosexual ones. Homosexuality is typically a relationship between equal parties. Incest, contrarily, is much more prone to abusive relations between older and younger siblings, father and daughter, or son and mother, before these individuals could be considered "consenting adults". It is this inherent prospect of abuse that makes incest different than homosexuality and compels the state to intervene.
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First cousins: Should incest between first cousins be permissible?

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Pro

  • Offspring of first-cousins have a low chance of defects Multiple studies show that the risk of defects among the offspring of first cousins is roughly 7%. This is only roughly 3% or 4% higher than the general populations risks of reproducing defectively, which is roughly 3% or 4%. While this represents a rough doubling of risks, it is still a relatively low and tolerable percentage.


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Con

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Pro


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