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Should Adult Sibling Incest Be a Crime?

The incest taboo has an obvious evolutionary explanation. But when it comes to sex between adult siblings, should we allow our judgment of what is a crime to be determined by feelings of repugnance that may have strengthened the evolutionary fitness of ancestors who lacked effective contraception?

PRINCETON – Last month, the German Ethics Council, a statutory body that reports to the Bundestag, recommended that sexual intercourse between adult siblings should cease to be a crime. The recommendation follows a 2012 decision by the European Court of Human Rights upholding the conviction of a Leipzig man for having a sexual relationship with his sister. The man has served several years in prison, owing to his refusal to abandon the relationship. (His sister was judged to be less responsible and was not jailed.)

Incest between adults is not a crime in all jurisdictions. In France, the offense was abolished when Napoleon introduced his new penal code in 1810. Consensual adult incest is also not a crime in Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Côte d’Ivoire, Brazil, Argentina, and several other Latin American countries.

The Ethics Council took its investigation seriously. Its report (currently available only in German) begins with testimony from those in a forbidden relationship, particularly half-brothers and sisters who came to know each other only as adults. These couples describe the difficulties created by the criminalization of their relationship, including extortion demands and the threat of loss of custody of a child from a previous relationship.

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