Patrick Goodenough | Pacific Rim Bureau Chief | Friday, May 21, 2004
Professor Peter Munz, professor emeritus of history at Wellington's Victoria University, stunned lawmakers who are considering amendments to criminal law by proposing that it was no longer necessary to outlaw sex between close relations.
He argued that, historically, incest was illegal because it was considered a waste of an asset to have women marry close to home. Women played an important role when one tribe wanted to create an alliance with another, he said.
"It was indeed a crime to waste good, nubile women on local people who were allies already, instead of using them to bring in new allies, new friends, new trade opportunities..." Munz said in a written submission
In modern society, however, women were no longer required for marriage alliances, he argued. The incest prohibition had "lingered on needlessly" but was clearly no longer required.
Munz, a scholar whose books have been published internationally, also asserted that the likelihood that any children resulting from incestuous intercourse would suffer genetic defects was not a sufficiently good reason for making incest illegal.
Any such damage would be sporadic, and in any case, "be eliminated after several generations."
Sexual attraction between members of a family who had grown up together was minimal, he said.
"Today, if siblings - against all odds - should fall in love with each other, they should be welcome to it."
After reading Munz' written submission, members of the parliament's Law and Order Committee had the opportunity to question the professor.
But according to committee vice-chairman, Marc Alexander, lawmakers were so shocked they chose not to discuss the matter further with him.
"We were absolutely stunned when the read the submission, and couldn't believe that anybody could possibly entertain the idea of decriminalizing incest," Alexander said Friday. "It was just unbelievable."
"None of us was willing to give him five minutes. We just didn't want to dignify his comments at all."
Alexander said he did not believe Munz' interest was merely "a single person's quest for some sort of bizarre truth. I presume that he has loyal followers who basically want to push this."
Although Munz only argued for legalizing incest between consenting adults, Alexander said his personal view was that the proposal was merely a "forerunner" of pedophilia. "I can see a potential link between the two."
"Once you loosen the bonds of incest, where do you go from there?"
Also critical of Munz' suggestions was New Zealand's Maxim Institute, a conservative think tank.
"In a culture that has exalted consent as the ultimate sexual ethic, why would we be surprised?" a representative asked.
"What will be next: the claim that consensual incest is a human right and to oppose it is 'familial' discrimination?"
In a phone interview Friday, Munz said he was surprised that lawmakers had not bothered to discuss the submission with him.
"I was struck by the lack of knowledge or interest. It's really a sobering thought to think that our laws are in the hands of people who are so ... disinterested and ignorant."
The single question he had been asked before the committee put aside his submission was: "Have you discussed this with women?" - which he took to be a tetchy response to his suggestion that women had been "used" historically to secure alliances with other tribes.
Asked to elaborate on his point regarding inbreeding, Munz said that according to genetics theory, "if you practice incest consistently over a period, receptive genes are likely to come up, which of course would be very bad."
"But it has also been found that if you continue to practice incest systematically, the recessive genes will automatically be weeded out, and only the dominant ones will come up."
In such a case, he said, "that would probably be an improvement in the genetic quality of mankind."
Munz conceded that this was a purely theoretical argument: No-one was going to practice incest for generations to prove the point.
Incest is banned around the world, although countries vary in their interpretation, with some allowing sexual relations between first cousins, for example.
In Australia in 1996, a discussion paper drawn up by a law reform committee proposed lifting the ban on incest between consenting adults.
Following a public outcry, the idea was dropped, although the committee members attributed the row to misunderstandings that its proposal would have legalized sexual relations between parents and minor children.
Professor Sheila Jeffreys of the University of Melbourne in Australia said Friday that once incest between adults is decriminalized, the issue of whether one person is being pressured or coerced becomes hazy.
"The problem is being able to recognize the duress. If you decriminalize it, it may be hard to recognize the duress, which is almost certainly from the older, and usually male, partner."
In Britain early last century, authorities would arrest both partners suspected to be in an incestuous relationship, Jeffreys said.
"There was no recognition of a power relationship going on, and of course there is almost inevitably a power relationship [involved]."
This week's incident in Wellington comes at a time conservative opponents of same-sex "marriage" are arguing that legalizing it will lead to the end of other sexual taboos, such as incest and bestiality.
Last year, Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was at the center of a storm after being accused of linking homosexual sexual relations with other sexual activities that are generally frowned upon.
"If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [homosexual] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything," he was quoted as telling an Associated Press reporter.
Santorum was commenting on a legal challenge to Texas' sodomy law, then underway.
After he was criticized by homosexual activists and some politicians, the senator said his remarks did not constitute a statement on "individual lifestyles," but had related to "the right of privacy and the broader implications of a ruling on other state privacy laws."
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