Why shouldn’t we have a debate on legalising incest?

There is a law in the UK which criminalises sex between consenting adults, based purely on out-dated social prejudices. To clear up any confusion: the law I’m talking about is the one which criminalises incest.
Recently, the Scottish parliament had to consider legalising incest. This was due to a petition, calling for consensual incest between adults over the age of 21, which exploited a legal loophole that requires the Scottish parliament to consider any petitions which call for a change in the law. Unsurprisingly, the committee of MSPs who had to examine this petition did so for as little time as possible; after having considered it for less than a minute, they threw out the petition, claiming there was no public desire for incest to be legalised.
This argument is somewhat limiting. For starters, several people have been arrested in Scotland for incest over the past few years; I imagine many of them would be happy to see the law changed. Additionally, a recent poll in the Mirror showed than 14% of people would support the legalising of incest; not an especially high proportion, perhaps, but it does show that there are people who care.
Furthermore, the number of people who are calling for the legalisation of incest shouldn’t be a concern. When the US first legalised inter-race marriages, the majority of people opposed it. That was one instance of the majority being wrong; this is another. No amount of opposition to something should make it illegal if it’s harming no one. If the majority of people wanted homosexuality to be illegal, that wouldn’t be a reason to make it so, and it should be the same for incest.
The opposition often focuses on claims that incest leads to genetic defects. However, this argument no longer holds up, for three simple reasons. Firstly, we now have the ability to screen embryos for genetic defects. Secondly, it doesn’t account for why incest in cases where reproduction is impossible (such as same-sex incest, or incest where one partner is infertile) should be illegal. Lastly, there are other couples, those who themselves suffer from genetic diseases, whose children are at far more risk of developing genetic problems, yet there is no law preventing them from being together, and there’s no reason there should be.
There’s a word for laws that try to control who can and can’t breed; it’s called eugenics. The fact that any politician standing up in favour of eugenics would be out of a job, yet the Scottish parliament is at liberty to fail to debate legalising incest for more than a minute, is nothing short of ridiculous. What’s more, it’s cowardly. Other countries have legalised incest, an extensive list including France, Turkey, China, Japan, Brazil, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Thailand, Spain, Portugal and the Ivory Coast.
The current law is based on social prejudices. If incest weren’t taboo, it wouldn’t be illegal. The chair of the committee that considered legalising incest (albeit barely) described the practice as “abhorrent”, but that response simply isn’t good enough.


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2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Why shouldn’t we have a debate on legalising incest?”

  1. As several people have brought it up, I thought I’d quickly address the abuse issue. I did consider the problem that legalising incest could make abusive relationships easier, but I didn’t have enough room in the article for everything, and I thought people would be more concerned with the genetic and social implications. It seems I was wrong, the risk of grooming appears to be the main problem for most of the people I have talked to.

    Abuse is a far more legitimate reason to keep incest illegal than genetic concerns, social norms, and lack of political will. I still don’t think it quite holds up. Firstly, the current law is inconsistent, if fear of abuse is why incest is illegal, then sex with step-family (which has all the same opportunities for grooming) should also be illegal. In the UK this is not the case, although the age of consent is raised to 21 in that situation. If this law were changed, then keeping incest illegal would have a reasonable basis. This might have been something the Scottish Parliament might have thought of, had they bothered to properly debate it.

    Additionally, I can also see the German Ethics Council’s point, that parent-child incest should remain illegal, due to the risk of abuse, but sibling incest should be permitted. Again, this is an area for debate. Perhaps the age of consent for such acts should be raised to 21, like with step-family.

    Legalising incest could well increase the risk of abuse, but it needn’t if proper safeguards were in place. After all, child abuse is illegal now, legalising incest wouldn’t change that. But I do accept that it might make it easier to hide. So are the potential risks too high a price to pay for individual liberty? Perhaps they are, and we can decide that when we actually have a debate on this issue.

August 2022
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