updated 4/5/2005 12:48:41 PM ET 2005-04-05T16:48:41

It began as the kind of childhood crush that often becomes family lore shared at reunions years later.

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Eventually, first cousins Donald W. Andrews Sr. and Eleanore Amrhein realized they had a deeper love and wanted to wed. It couldn’t happen in their home state of Pennsylvania, though, or 23 other states that prohibit first cousins from marrying each other.

Instead, they tied the knot in Maryland last month.

“This is a decision me and my husband have made on our own. We never thought of it being publicized,” said Eleanor Andrews, 37. “We didn’t want the publicity. We wanted the rights like anybody had the rights.”

Their nuptials highlight a relationship that often draws scorn, yet advocates say is equally misunderstood. Such marriages are common in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and are legal in Europe and Canada.

'Genetic discrimination'
In the United States, 26 states and the District of Columbia allow first cousins to wed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those, five have requirements aimed at preventing reproduction and one state requires genetic counseling.

Robin Bennett, associate director of the medical genetics clinic at the University of Washington, said that laws prohibiting cousins from marrying are “a form of genetic discrimination.”

Bennett led a 2002 study on risks of genetic problems in children born in such marriages. The study found that children born to couples who are first or second cousins have a lower risk for birth defects than commonly perceived.

On average, an unrelated couple has an approximately 3 percent to 4 percent risk of having a child with a birth defect, significant mental retardation or serious genetic disease.

Close cousins face an additional risk of 1.7 percent to 2.8 percent, according to the study, funded by the National Society of Genetic Counselors, and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Christie Smith, 40, founded Cousins United to Defeat Discriminating Laws through Education, in 2002 to overturn laws banning such marriages. So far, the group hasn’t found much success.

“People don’t like what they don’t understand,” said Smith, who fell in love with her husband after seeing him at a family reunion.

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