Brother-sister couple challenges German incest law

Should the state butt out of private family business?

Published March 8, 2007 4:59PM (EST)

Straight from the scary fairy tales of once-upon-an-adoption comes the story of Patrick Stuebing and Susan Karolewski, a brother and sister, who fell in love, had four children and now are fighting the German courts to overthrow its brother-sister incest law. As reported Wednesday by the BBC, the couple describe themselves as a "normal couple" who just want to have a family and live without discrimination. Stuebing already spent two years in jail for committing incest, and he'll get thrown back into jail for another sentence if the current incest law stands. Three of the couple's four children have been taken into foster care.

Now, maybe I'm becoming a reactionary scold in my approaching dotage, but the couple's relationship doesn't sound terribly normal, nor even, perhaps, consensual. According to the article, Stuebing, who had been adopted by another family, found his biological family at the age of 23, when Karolewski was 15. After their mother died six months later, the couple fell in love and began living together and popping out babies at a prodigious rate of four in six years. OK, vive la différence and all, but people! That's a 16-year-old living with her 24-year-old brother and pregnant most of the time. Ech.

But it's not as if they don't have a case. Incest laws around the world vary widely, though the practice is illegal in most countries. In Germany, sex with a relative still constitutes a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison. But in neighboring France, Napoleon abolished incest laws in 1810, and recently Japan, Argentina and Brazil legalized it. The United States still criminalizes incest and many states still outlaw kissin'-cousin incest as well.

The particulars of Steubing and Karolewski's story are less interesting than the questions raised by their lawsuit. Invoking racial hygiene laws on the one hand and modern motherhood on the other, the case fingers the bleeding edge of our own entitlements.

"Why are disabled parents allowed to have children, or people with hereditary diseases or women over 40? No one says that is a crime," Endrik Wilhelm, the couple's lawyer, told the BBC. "This couple are not harming anyone. It is discrimination. And besides, we must not forget that every child is so valuable."

These arguments play upon two cherished notions in modern Western societies: That consensual love between adults should be respected by society and that everyone who wants to have a baby should have the right to bear one.

Of course, incest taboos predate the science of genetics, but many of the contemporary arguments against the practice derive from the knowledge that interbreeding produces children with a higher risk of disabilities. Among offspring of siblings, there's a 50 percent chance of disability, and so far the German couple's children have proved the rule: According to Steubing, one son has "epilepsy and learning difficulties" and one daughter has "special needs."

When is it OK to knowingly conceive a child that has a higher than average chance of disabilities? At what point does the desire to become a parent turn into criminal selfishness? With a 10 percent chance of disability, or a 20 or 30 percent chance? I know 50-50 seems like pretty bad odds, but no doubt some parents with genetic diseases face similar risks without legal ramifications. With older parents, in vitro-produced multiples and the dubious gift of genetic testing all poured into the societal test tube, no doubt the next decade will force us to confront the edge between the freedom to bear children and the responsibility to protect them.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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