Saloma Miller Furlong
Author and Speaker

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Amish Genetics

Deanna wrote: How do they deal with the issue of practically everyone being related?

Deanna, this question deserves a longer answer, because it is quite complicated. In my opinion, the Amish are going to need to address this issue, because the gene pool is so very concentrated and becomes more so with each generation. It is very common for Amish young people to marry their second cousins. I had an aversion to that and vowed I never would. Yet, it seemed as though every time I dated someone, I found out he was my second cousin in some way or another (sometimes in more ways than one). 

As one can imagine, there are many genetic diseases that occur because of the concentrated gene pool. I recently heard about a couple in my home community that consciously got together from two separate communities for that very reason. This gives me hope that there are at least some Amish people aware that if they are to survive and thrive as a culture, they need to be conscious of finding “new blood.” They rarely have converts join their culture, so this is actually a challenge, especially because if someone marries a partner from outside the culture, they will be excommunicated and shunned. At least marrying someone from a different community is better than marrying someone within buggy-driving distance in one’s home community. Usually when one couple in a community thinks this way, others will follow. 

To give an idea of what kind of challenges the Amish face, I will provide several links to articles/videos about Amish genetics:

This one is about Cohen Syndrome, a genetic disorder found in my home community, Geauga County, Ohio. Click here for the Deutsch Center in Middlefield, Ohio and about Mark and Esther Kauffman and their family. Mark and Esther were two of the most beautiful young people I’d ever seen in my home community. They married and had a baby girl, who was born normal. I had already left the community by then, but my mother described how hard it was to hear this baby cry all during a church service, and how she just thought she had to do something for the poor child. What nobody realized is that she had a very rare genetic disease that caused her liver to slowly poison her brain. Mark and Esther had three more children, who all had the same disease. All four of them are now so profoundly retarded that they do not know who they are. As it turns out, Mark and Esther each carried two recessive mutated genes, which means it would have been impossible for them to have healthy children. There was a question at some point about whether they would name this disease after the Kauffmans’, because there were only a few cases in the world that resembled this one and geneticists were not sure the known cases were the same as the Kauffmans’ children. I don’t know that the disease has a name to this day. 

Dr. Holmes Morton founded the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. His clinic now recommends that all Amish and Mennonite children in the Lancaster community be routinely screened for 35 genetic diseases, such as Crigler-Najjar syndrome, maple syrup urine disease, glutari aciduria, pigeon breast disease, and pretzel syndrome. For a USA Today report about this, you can click here.

In both the centers in Ohio and in Pennsylvania, the emphasis is on identifying the genetic disorders and treating them. There is little or none on preventing these genetic disorders by deciding who to marry (or not) based on genetic testing. Most of the Amish believe that God will provide for them, and therefore it would be wrong to try to change “His plan.” There has been a debate for as long as humans could contemplate the issue about whether there really is such a thing as free will. It seems to me that this is about the best place to exercise it, if we do have a way of determining our destiny. 

The flip side of the Amish genetics is that there are many highly intelligent people tucked away in the Amish communities. To me it is a tragedy to see someone who highly intelligent get a mere eighth grade education. I wrote about this in a former post. Ironically, “Ervin” is closely related to Mark Kauffman. 

So the issues around Amish genetics are complicated. Because of their religious beliefs, what most of us would see as possible solutions, are not options for the Amish. Too bad — many of these diseases could be avoided, if the Amish would only be mindful of genetics when they choose their marriage partners. I understand that this would be a break from tradition, but wouldn’t it be ironic if their stubborn adherence to tradition were to eventually jeopardize the survival of their culture? 

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