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All in the Family

He was the town's James Dean, the Texas teenager with a studly look and a sensitive soul.

She was his friend's "bratty little sister," the kid who always tagged along and got in everyone's way as a half-pint tomboy. 

Some 14 years after Mark and Christie Smith last saw each other in their tiny hometown north of Dallas, the two met again at a family barbecue, struck up a friendship and fell in love. 

But the reaction was mixed when the two announced their engagement to their families — or family, to be more precise. 

That's the tricky part. Mark and Christie Smith are first cousins. 

"Even we thought, 'this is gross, this is incest, this is wrong, we can't possibly get married,'" Christie, 36, said in a telephone interview. "But it's not like we choose who we fall in love with." 

Although there are no official statistics about the number of cousin couples in the United States, estimates show there are thousands of couples across the nation who are first cousins or first cousins once removed just like the Smiths. But they keep their familial relationships secret because of shame, prejudice and ignorance, she says. 

Building a 'Family' Network 

Enter www.cousincouples.com, a Web site founded by Mike Johnson, a 28-year-old real estate agent in Greensboro, N.C., shortly after he married his first cousin Lisa, 25, five years ago. 

"I never intended to marry my cousin," he said. "Things just got serious and then one morning I woke up and wanted to be with her, regardless of the consequences." 

But when Johnson wanted to find out what he had to do to stay with her, he found almost nothing in the way of organized help. 

"It was very frustrating at the time," he said. "I went to the library and there was really no book on cousins. I came in with the same stereotypes as everyone else in my head. My mother thought we would have three-headed babies. Only after a while did I realize it was not illegal." 

But in many places it is. Twenty-three states ban marriages of first cousins or first cousins once removed. Seven others allow such marriages with conditions like mandatory genetic counseling or restrictions on having children. 

Johnson said he didn't want other couples to go through what he did. He started the Web site and was soon flooded with responses. 

"I've found them from all walks of life: lawyers, doctors, mill workers, teachers. People kept telling me they had tears in their eyes when they found the site, because they weren't oddballs anymore, they could connect with each other. 

Bucking the System 

Among those who found a new community at www.cousincouples.com were the Smiths, who discovered the site six months after they married. Christie soon joined Johnson in running it, though the two have never met. 

Under their combined management, the Web site began to more aggressively promote the cause of cousin couples. Last year, they lobbied to strike down a Maryland bill that would have banned first-cousin marriages. The bill passed in the state House of Delegates but was voted down in the state Senate. 

The critics can be fierce. "We . . . get plenty of hate mail, typically religious-based," Johnson says. 

Some e-mails sent to the site have denounced it, citing what the letter writers say are religious, moral and scientific reasons against first-cousin marriages. 

"Incest is a sin," one California man wrote. 

"Remember, this was the reason for the fall of the Roman empire," another man, apparently from Tennessee, wrote. "We have enough birth defects in the U.S. Why take the chance? I think it is sick for cousins to marry. We wouldn't breed our animals to cousins." 

Henry B. Heller, the Democratic state delegate who introduced the Maryland bill, said he wrote the bill when he discovered, to his surprise and horror, that not only did the state not have a law against cousin marriages, but many cousins went there specifically to get married. 

"I think it sends the wrong message," he said in a telephone interview. "The reality is you have one chance in 16 of having a genetic problem, and I think those are poor odds, and society may have to support a handicapped child." 

Heller said he was considering introducing a new bill that would require genetic counseling or prohibit marriages where children were planned. 

Corrie Smith, a genetic counselor from University of Washington who takes neither side in the issue, said the risk of a congenital defect for children of first-cousin, or consanguineous, marriages is double that for non-related couples — anywhere from four to 10 percent as opposed to two to five percent. 

It can prove especially problematic when the lovers share the genes for rare disorders like Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. 

"I myself have seen have seen consanguineous couples with (with kids with) a sort of condition that has never been described," Smith said. "I'm thinking of one couple, of Mexican descent, that were not even first cousins — I believe they were second cousins. They had three children, and two had this disorder where they were mentally retarded, wheelchair bound and had hearing difficulties, and we didn't know what it was." 

At the same time, Smith said, there are many cultures where first-cousin marriages are not only accepted, but the norm, such as Saudi Arabia, parts of India and Pakistan and some places in Africa. 

On their Web site, Christie Smith and Mike Johnson admit first-cousin mates risk about double the chance of having children with genetic disorders. But they say that, just as in any relationship, only the two people involved should make the ultimate decision whether or not the risks are worth taking. 

"I think the fear is greater than the reality," Christie Smith said. "It's the same old taboo we're all familiar with, but I honestly believe that God wanted me to be with Mark."