Is It Illegal to Marry Your Cousin in South Carolina? Here’s What the Law Says

The idea of marrying a close relative, specifically a cousin, sparks diverse reactions. Cousin marriage carries legal, social, and ethical complexities that vary significantly across cultures and jurisdictions. While it might bring discomfort or surprise to some, it’s essential to understand the historical context and legal considerations surrounding this practice, particularly in the state of South Carolina.

Historical Background of Cousin Marriage

Historically, cousin marriages have been relatively common in many parts of the world. In the past, they were often favored for various reasons, including:

  • Maintaining Property and Wealth: Marrying within the family helped consolidate wealth and property.
  • Strengthening Social Bonds: It fostered stronger alliances among families and communities.
  • Religious Traditions: Some religions might have encouraged or even preferred marriages between cousins.

However, with increased scientific understanding of genetics, concerns arose about the potential for a higher risk of birth defects and genetic disorders within families that practice close-kin marriages. These concerns have led to debates and changes in legislation in many regions.

Cousin Marriage Laws in the United States

The United States exhibits a patchwork of laws regarding cousin marriage. Each state has its own regulations, leading to a complex legal landscape.

  • States Banning Cousin Marriage: Approximately 24 states prohibit marriages between first cousins.
  • States Allowing Cousin Marriage: Roughly 19 states explicitly permit first-cousin marriages.
  • States with Restrictions: Around 7 states permit first-cousin marriage with certain conditions, such as genetic counseling or a requirement of one partner being sterile.
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South Carolina’s Stance on Cousin Marriage

South Carolina falls into the category of states that allow first-cousin marriages without any restrictions. The relevant law, the South Carolina Code of Laws § 16-15-20, addresses marriages deemed incestuous, but it provides an exception for first cousins and more distant relatives.

Interestingly, South Carolina’s law has not always been so permissive. Previous iterations of the legislation were more restrictive. However, it is unclear what prompted the shift toward a more lenient stance.

Arguments For and Against Cousin Marriage

The debate surrounding cousin marriage revolves around ethical concerns and individual freedoms. Here are the main points from each side:

Arguments in Favor of Cousin Marriage:

  • Personal Liberty: Supporters believe individuals should have the right to marry whomever they choose, including cousins.
  • Cultural/Religious Traditions: Some cultures and religions view cousin marriage as acceptable or even preferred.

Arguments Against Cousin Marriage

  • Genetic Risks: The primary argument against cousin marriage is the increased risk of passing on recessive genetic disorders to offspring.
  • Social/Ethical Concerns: Critics express unease about the social implications and potential blurring of family dynamics.

The Scientific Perspective

It’s crucial to address the genetic risks associated with cousin marriage. While the risk is higher compared to unrelated couples, it’s essential to put it in perspective:

  • The Baseline Risk: Every couple faces a baseline risk (around 3-4%) of having a child with birth defects or genetic disorders.
  • Increased Risk for Cousins: Studies estimate that first cousins have a slightly increased risk, with estimates ranging from 5% to 7%. This is still relatively low in the overall scheme.
  • The Importance of Context: It’s essential to remember that many other factors, like parental age and family medical history, can significantly influence the risk of genetic problems.
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Alternatives to Cousin Marriage

For couples who are concerned about the possible genetic risks or who face social pressure, there are alternatives to consider:

  • Expanding the Dating Pool: Choosing partners from a wider pool lessens the chance of sharing potentially harmful recessive traits.
  • Addressing Cultural or Religious Motivations: Open communication with family and religious leaders can help explore ways to honor traditions without necessarily requiring cousin marriage.
  • Genetic Counseling: Couples with concerns can seek genetic counseling to gain a better understanding of personalized risks and available reproductive options.


South Carolina is one of the states in the U.S. where marrying your first cousin is legal. While historically common, the practice of cousin marriage is becoming increasingly scrutinized due to potential genetic risks. The decision to engage in cousin marriage involves personal, cultural, and ethical considerations. A balanced understanding of the potential risks, along with the availability of counseling resources, is crucial for those contemplating this type of union.

Ultimately, whether or not cousin marriage continues to be practiced and legally permissible is likely to be the subject of ongoing debate and potential legal shifts in the future.

Important Considerations

  • It’s important to note that this article aims to provide objective information, not personal advice. Individuals considering cousin marriage should always consult with relevant experts (legal advisors, healthcare professionals, genetic counselors) to make fully informed decisions.
  • The article should be reviewed for accuracy regarding the specific text of South Carolina law, as statutes can be subject to change.

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