Taboo Too

Iceland Gets Site
to Prevent Incest

By now, the genetic homogeneity of Iceland is almost proverbial. Despite periodic challenges to the notion, the latest studies seem to confirm that the 300,000 Icelanders are loosely related to each other.
That’s why for a decade, ‘Íslendingabók,’ a genealogical online database, has been helping the population to navigate and likely avoid the traps of falling in love with a close relative.
The Website has been a hit, and so have been medical studies that take advantage of the uniformity of the island’s genetic pool.
Critics, though, have two big bones to pick about such initiatives: the spectrum of Big Brother and the changing attitudes toward incest.
That’s what everyone is supposed to ask each other, whenever they feel that something other than dinner and a movie may be in the works. Of course, caution still needs to be exercised, lest that meal and time in a darkened room may not come to fruition otherwise.
But Iceland, which was settled by a few Norsemen and Celts in the 9th century CE, remains relatively free of immigration. As such, is one of the most genetically homogenous countries in the world.
The Book of Icelanders, which is free and user friendly, has information on every single citizen since the 18th century. It’s also a handy dating tool, and may help anyone to learn details about everyone else they may be related to. Or not.
That feature, alone, has advocates of personal privacy fearing unwarranted searches, government snooping, spam and many other sinister uses. And that in a country that has much stricter rules protecting personal freedom that even the U.S.
As it goes, they haven’t seen the least of it yet. But the average citizen has had no complains on record, since the fear of committing incest, even when involuntary, seems to trample on personal needs for privacy.
The Book of Icelanders is not the first time such a unique genetic pool and unrivaled genealogical records are being put to the service of science. Research on causes and potential cures for some of the world’s worst diseases is going on since the 1990s.
But privacy activists point to the fact that international pharmaceutical corporations have arguably more to gain than Iceland itself. And findings can always be used for discrimination and prejudice from one group towards another, which is remarkable since this is, after all, a society of relatives. But their arguments do have merit.
The so called ‘great genetic experiment,’ though, has already discovered more than a dozen genes linked to diseases ranging from stroke to schizophrenia, Type 2 diabetes to heart attacks.

The experiment did run into obstacles. To build a database of genomes, for example, blood samples from as many Icelanders as possible were needed, as well as access to their health records.
Even though Parliament granted permission to tap into those records, and thousands of citizens donated blood, soon enough their willingness to cooperate grew sour.
Either because there was a multinational involved, about to sell Icelanders’ personal information to foreign markets, or because it sold shares but never turned a profit to its investors, many sued it to be let out of the project.
The country’s Supreme Court ruled in their favor in 2003 and, while it didn’t derail the whole project, which is still going on, it did make a dent on its sexy premise of curing diseases and all that.

The genealogical database poses yet another dilemma, as moral as individual rights, but more delicate since unlike those, it hasn’t really gained traction in the public arena: the incest taboo.
Talking about a loaded issue, whenever people hear the ‘I’ word, they tend to associate it, or assume it’s connected to either rape or pedophilia, or even both. In other words, an issue of abuse and violence.
But what if sex between the two people (let’s keep it simple) who are related is consensual and they have the same age?
The question was posed to Tauriq Moosa, a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, who then led a frank discussion on the subject with his students.
Quickly, they found out that the usual arguments against incest, per se, don’t really hold any water. Claims that ‘it’s not natural,’ leads to ‘deformed children,’ and that it’s ‘repugnant’ are mere fears or judgements based on personal values.
There’s really no intrinsic factor that determines that incest is pure and simply wrong. Only that it’s a personal decision that should be taken by mature individuals at their own discretion and mutual consent.
As it’s been said, earthquakes are natural events, which doesn’t mean that anyone would wish that they’d happen more often. The same with the possibility of fetus malformation, which is a inherent risk of any pregnancy.
And repulse has been expressed, throughout the ages, to everything this or that group didn’t particularly agree with, from homosexuality to women’s vote.
Nature did seem to have created a fail-safe mechanism against incest, to prevent inbreeding. Known as the Westermarck effect, it postulates that there’s a reverse sexual imprinting among people raised together in early childhood.
It’s supposed to desensitize them to later close sexual attraction and it seems directed at protecting evolution and preventing inbreeding, something that had the potential to destroy civilization.
Otherwise, and again, abstracting of any issue where abuse is involved, sexual attraction between siblings happens when they have been raised apart and don’t know that they share the same genes.
That being said, under arguably ‘normal’ circumstances, there are not many reasons for anyone to direct his or her affections toward a sibling, and if that happens, there may be personal risks involved.
At the end of the day, such risks are the ones that should be the biggest concern of society, along with the risk of losing one’s privacy, and unwillingly granting access to private information to strangers.
We often hear on the news about some medieval costume still being enforced by contemporary societies, in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, where women are murdered for not bearing sons, children for refusing to marry, and people for rebelling against their allocated gender roles.
Our outrage is easy to be justified, because these are unfortunate clear-cut cases of violent intolerance and murderous obscurantism.
Not many are so eager to jump in defense of the same values when the ‘accused’ are siblings who unknowingly fell in love, as it happened recently in the U.K.
Brother and sister were ‘caught’ having sex, and were convicted of committing incest under some archaic law of Scotland’s criminal code, even though he was 21 and she, 18, thus both of age.
This just happened in Scotland, let’s us repeat it; not Afghanistan, not Pakistan, not India. And not that we’d condone it if it had happened anywhere else either.
But, to be perfectly honest, our point is hardly to convince anyone, anyway. In fact, halfway through this post, we were very concerned about whether we were ever going to make it to the end.
Now that we did it, we hope you got, at least, something to think about it. Because as for us, let us just tell you, we’re pretty much spent.


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