Fact Check

Did Dr. Oz Say Sex with Cousins Isn’t ‘a Big Problem’ if You’re ‘More Than a First Cousin Away’?

Past remarks by the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate came under scrutiny in 2022.

Published Sep 7, 2022

 (Elyse Horvath/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Elyse Horvath/Wikimedia Commons
Claim:
Television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz said having sex with a cousin is “not a big problem” if “you’re more than a first cousin away.”
Context

In this instance, Dr. Oz was giving his medical opinion in answer to a question from a man who said he has sex with his own cousin. Some construed this to mean Oz was advocating for "incest," which is defined by law as sexual contact between close blood relatives, including brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or aunts or uncles with nephews or nieces. In some (not all) U.S. states, sex between first cousins is also counted as incest and is banned, but that is where Oz himself clearly drew the line.

Fact Check

Television personality-turned-Republican senatorial candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz has expressed many controversial opinions and, according to some, given questionable medical advice over the years. Most recently, some comments he made about sex between cousins in a 2014 interview on the radio show "The Breakfast Club" raised eyebrows online. 

Oz was responding to a question posed by a listener that was read aloud by host Angela Yee: “I’m going to ask you this and you tell me if this is safe for this person, okay?” Yee said to Oz. “Well, he said, ‘Yee, I can’t stop smashing my cousin.’” She clarified to Oz, “That means sleeping with.”

“‘We hooked up at a young age and now in our twenties, she still wants it. No matter how much I want to stop, I always give it to her. Help me.’ What advice would you give that person?” she continued. It is not clear if the person asking the question was referring to a first or second cousin.

Oz said, “If you’re more than a first cousin away, it’s not a big problem.” 

He elaborated:

Every family has genetic strengths and weaknesses. And so the reason we naturally crave people who are not so like us is because you just mix the gene pool up a little bit so that if I had one gene for, let’s say, hemophilia, which is a classic example where you bleed a lot if you cut yourself, I don’t want to marry a cousin who has the same hemophilia gene, because the chance of our child having both those genes is much higher.

You can hear the full interview online (the conversation starts at around 13:25). In context, Oz seemed to address the question from a purely medical perspective, and did not offer a moral or legal opinion of the practice. However, his comments have been interpreted by some media outlets (such as Jezebel) as supporting some cousin-related "incest," with misleading headlines like, "Dr. Oz on Incest: More Than First Cousin? 'Not a Big Problem.'"

Incest, according to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute is illegal in all 50 states, and is defined as: “marriage or sexual intercourse with a relative within the prohibited degree of consanguinity. In other words, incest is sexual contact between close blood relatives, including brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or aunts or uncles with nephews or nieces. Incest is a crime in all states, even if consensual by both parties.”

Marriage laws regarding cousins vary from state to state. In some states, marriage between cousins is not considered incest. In North Carolina, for instance, "The parties cannot be more closely related than first cousins, and cannot be double first cousins (for instance, the children of two sisters who married two brothers)." But other states across the U.S. (like North Dakota and Kentucky) forbid marriage between first cousins. In Arizona, "first cousins may marry if both are sixty-five years of age or older or if one or both first cousins are under sixty-five years of age, upon approval of any superior court judge in the state if proof has been presented to the judge that one of the cousins is unable to reproduce."

Cousin marriages are extremely common in other parts of the world. In places like Pakistan, where the practice continues, scientists have found high levels of genetic disorders, so Oz is not entirely incorrect on that front. 

But Oz’s further comments in the same interview were considered by Jezebel to be even weirder: “You know, that’s why children, girls don’t like their fathers’ smell. Their pheromones will actually repel their daughters because they’re not supposed to be together,” Oz said. “My daughters hate my smell.”

Yee responded with, “Maybe you just smell.” Oz replied, “My wife says she likes the smell.”

We should note that during his 2022 election campaign, Oz shared his opinions on abortion, stating that “Life starts at conception.” He later added that he is against abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the life of the mother. 

Sources:

“Can Kissing Cousins Wed in the US?” VOA, https://www.voanews.com/a/can-kissing-cousins-wed-in-the-us-/4907000.html. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“CHAPTER 14-03 MARRIAGE CONTRACT.” North Dakota Legislature, https://www.ndlegis.gov/cencode/t14c03.pdf. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“Dr. Oz Interview.” Spreaker, https://www.spreaker.com/user/thebreakfastclub/dr-oz-interview_1. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“Dr. Oz on Incest: More Than First Cousin? ‘Not a Big Problem.’” Jezebel, 6 Sept. 2022, https://jezebel.com/dr-oz-on-incest-more-than-first-cousin-not-a-big-pro-1849501672. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“FDA to Dr. Oz: Apple Juice Is Safe after All.” NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/fda-dr-oz-apple-juice-safe-after-all-flna1C9455326. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“Incest.” LII / Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/incest. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“Kentucky Marriage Law: A Guide for County Clerks.” Office of the Attorney General, Kentucky, July 2021, https://ag.ky.gov/AG%20Publications/County%20Clerks%27%20Guide%20to%20Kentucky%20Marriage%20Law.pdf. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

"Marriage." North Carolina Judicial Branch. https://www.nccourts.gov/help-topics/divorce-and-marriage/marriage. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“Opinion | Dr. Oz Has Misused His TV Platform for Years. Don’t Buy His Political Platform.” NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/dr-oz-win-pennsylvania-gop-senate-primary-tv-show-warning-voters-rcna29722. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“The Trolling of Dr. Oz: Satire and Snark Take Center Stage in Pennsylvania Senate Race.” Los Angeles Times, 7 Sept. 2022, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-09-07/2020-election-fetterman-dr-oz-trolling-reaches-voters-in-pennsylvania-senate-race. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“Pakistan: Cousin Marriages Create High Risk of Genetic Disorders | DW | 07.02.2022.” DW.COM, https://www.dw.com/en/pakistan-cousin-marriages-create-high-risk-of-genetic-disorders/a-60687452. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

"Void and Prohibited Marriages." Arizone State Legislature. https://www.azleg.gov/viewdocument/?docName=https://www.azleg.gov/ars/25/00101.htm. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.

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