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Forbidden Love

Karin and Christoph are a couple that is not allowed to be together: They have a child, despite the fact that they are half-siblings. Here's the tale of a secret relationship.

Photo: A couple holding hands in the sunset

Symbolic picture of a couple holding hands. It is hard to tell how many siblings there are that are in love. A German association of affected couples estimates that there could be between 50 and 150. But as long as incest is punishable the real number will be hard to gauge.

Can something that is not meant to be feel so good? When they spent their first night together - the first, in which they did not lie next to each other as brother and sister, but as a couple in love - that question was playing over and over again in their minds.

Intuitively, they knew they had just broken a taboo and that many people would disapprove of their decision or even react in disgust. They knew it would be better not to repeat what they had done.

But they did it anyway. Because there was no other way it could go, as they recall. Because the attraction between them was so strong and it grew even stronger. So they became a couple. An incestous couple, because they are half-silblings with the same mother. Even if this mother was never really a mother to them and it was not long before that night that they got to know each other.

Karin and Christoph are an extraordinarily beautiful young couple in their twenties. Proudly, they show off the rooftop apartment in a small town in Germany that they decorated themselves. Incest? That's a term that doesn't seem to fit this idyllic scene.

But their apartment is now a "crime scene", registered on file by two police officers, who were interested to know whether Karin and Christoph were engaged in activities that society does not deem acceptable between a brother and sister.

"For a moment I hesitated"

Sex among siblings is a crime in Germany. According to "incest paragraph" 173 in German criminal code, you can be sentenced to two years in prison, despite the fact that it is a consensual act between two adults.

Map showing in which countries incest is punishable and where it isn't

Please note: Incest has different definitions, varying across countries. In most countries it refers to sexual intercourse between a brother and sister, and in most cases also applies to half-siblings. If you are interested in a specific country's situation, please see its criminal code.

Karin and Christoph did not know about the law, when passion took over them in that winter night, now almost three years ago. They only felt uneasy. "For a moment I hesitated over whether it was a good idea," Karin recalls of their first night. "I thought I just can't do that," Christoph says.

They pushed their inner resistance aside. And the external resistance from others, they accepted: friends distanced themselves from them, because "disgust and aversion are just too deeply rooted in their minds," as Karin puts it.

But there's something the pair, who did not want their real names printed in the newspaper, did not anticipate: What trouble their love would cause them and how the illegality of their affection would make it possible for others to inform on them. That they learned about just a few months later when two police officers knocked on their door to interrogate them.

"I call this perverse"

Sex among close relatives remains one of the biggest taboos. In a society where men have sex with men, women with women and where almost any type of sexual fulfilment is tolerated, even consensual incest among adults is disapproved of.

The German Ethics Council recently spoke out in favor of ending punishment of incestuous relationships to enable affected couples to live a life without fear.

"I have hope that something as valuable as the genuine love between two people, who do not profoundly harm other people, may be possible in our society," said the ethics council chairwoman Christiane Woopen.

But criticism was huge - some called the Ethics Council's recommendation "scandalous" and "senseless". One politician went as far as to say it contradicts a "healthy public attitude". Online, members of the public protested on a very different level: "How sick are you actually?????", said one comment. "This makes me sick" and "I call it perverse!!!"

Karin and Christoph are well used to it by now. Nonetheless, they were still hurt. Like the Ethics Council's chairwoman, they had hoped that the proposition would pave the way for open discussion on the issue. But little of that came to pass.

Was their love perhaps the biggest mistake of their lives?

Evidence of their crime

"Dink!" coos the little girl sitting between them. "What do you want?" asks the mother. The father immediately understands, "Sure, Mia, you can have something to drink." Tenderly, he takes the little one on his lap. The product of our love, says the mother happily. She can't really see a mistake in that. The product of a disgrace, others might say. And for the police, evidence of a crime.

It was in spring 2011, when Karin first met her half-brother. Their mother, an alcoholic, had pushed for the meeting. She had not had much contact with either of her children. While Christoph had lived with his grandparents on his father's side since he was three, Karin was brought up in a children's home. "He's had a nice life," was the thought that flashed through Karin's mind, when she saw her half brother for the first time. "He has been really spoiled," she laughs.

And apart from that there was nothing at the beginning? "Oh, I also thought that's a handsome guy," she smiles. "And I realized that I didn't feel for Christoph in the same way I would a brother. How could I? We were total strangers." There were no other feelings at the time. And they were both in relationships at that point anyway.

The intimacy grew during long walks and intense conversations. They always had something to tell each other. Sometimes, when it had once again gotten late, they slept next to each other. "For a while we suppressed those feelings that showed we were about to fall in love," Karin recalls. It was just a few months until brother and sister suddenly became a loving couple.

"If someone had asked me earlier, whether I'd have a relationship with my sister, I would have said: 'are you nuts?'" says Christoph. But they did not feel like siblings at all. "We probably would not have fallen in love, if we had grown up together."

The principle of 'genetic sexual attraction'

Scientists also have a similar theory. According to a widely acknowledged idea, people develop an aversion to having sex with people they are very familiar with. Research seems to back up what Finnish anthropologist Edvard Westermarck postulated more than a hundred years ago, "that there is an innate aversion to sexual intercourse between persons living very closely together from early youth."

Photo: Children of the Israeli Kibbutz community on a 1950 photograph

It seems that the intimacy of growing up together minimizes attraction to one another. One piece of evidence: The children in the Kibbutz communities, for example, grow up in close proximity, but almost never marry each other.

This seems to relate less to being blood relations than to intimacy. Evidence for this is in the Simpua marriages in Taiwan, where children that are promised to each other for marriage, grow up together. Their marriages are often childless. There are also the Kibbutz in Israel – their long-term intimacy turns out to be a passion killer. Israeli anthropologists discovered that children who live together from birth almost never marry each other.

When blood relatives get to know each other as adults, however, attraction between them seems to be even stronger. A 2010 study from Illinois showed that people find others who are genetically similar particularly sexually attractive, if they don't know they are blood relations. The principal of "genetic sexual attraction" confirms the experience of many incestuous couples. "Those affected speak of a spiritual connection, that they have never experienced before,” reports lawyer Endrik Wilhelm, who represents some of the couples.

In 2008 and 2012, he presented a lawsuit for another German couple at the Federal Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. But the judges considered the incest paragraph in conformity with the constitution. The Federal Constitutional Court explained this by saying that it is only vaginal sex among siblings that is punishable. Thus, affected couples would have other "options of intimate communication" and would "not be brought into a dead-end situation that is irreconcilable with respect for human rights." The man, who had several children with his sister, went to prison for three years.

'We were dependent on all those, who knew about us'

When the case was reported on in the media again in 2012, Karin and Christoph were startled. "Just then, we realized that we were dependent on all those, who knew about us," Karin says. "We could be reported at any moment." They lived in peace for two years until inheritance disputes came up in Christoph's family. An aunt threatened Christoph: "Shut up, we have you over a barrel." Then she reported the couple.

There was a time that Karin and Christoph tried to end their relationship. "We had to admit, that our relationship was never going to be accepted and that with Christoph I also would not be able to fulfill my desire of having children," Karin says. They knew that children of the incestuous European aristocracy were often ill. "I thought: This can't be true! I could imagine spending my whole life with this woman!" Christoph recalls. Still today he is close to tears while telling the story: "I said, I can give you everything, just not children." They couldn't stand the break up for long. And very soon they found out: Karin was pregnant from her half-brother.

Photo: A close-up on the belly of a pregnant woman

The risk for a genetic malfunction among half-siblings children is between 15 and 20 percent, a human geneticist estimated. Among other groups, such as women over 45 and people with a hereditary genetic disorders, the risk is even higher.

Pregnant! Oh my god! What would the child be like? That question was also in the mind of the doctor at the center for human genetics. She had never dealt with such a case until then. Relationships between siblings are rare - in Germany, it is likely that there are no more than 150 of them. Pregnancies are even rarer.

The risk of malformation in an ordinary pregnancy is between two and four percent, she said. For half-siblings, the risk increases to between 15 and 20 percent. That made Christoph deeply anxious. But Karin cheered him up: This meant there was 80 percent chance of having a healthy child. And when he heard the heartbeat during the ultrasound, everything became clear: "We wanted our child. And we would also have wanted it even if it had disabilities," he says.

The public's main argument is weak

The high malformation rate of potential offspring is the public's main argument for incest prohibition. However, the argument is weak at best. Many other groups have even higher risks of genetic malformations - women over 45, for example, or people with predispositions for severe genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis. And following that line of argument, would disabled people be allowed to have children? You'd enter highly volatile matters ethically speaking. The German Association for Human Genetics stressed already in 2008 that "public health" as an argument against incestuous relationships would be an "assault on the reproductive freedom of everyone".

Also, the minority in the German Ethics Council that voted against making consensual incest between siblings legal did not use potential genetic problems as an explanation for their vote. The nine out of 25 members were more concerned about the protection of the family. "But which family are you trying to protect, when there were no family bonds before the partners got to know each other?" asks lawyer Wilhelm. "And why does the incest prohibition then only apply to blood relatives and not also for adopted children or step siblings?"

Protection of the family? This makes Karin and Christoph laugh. "In our case the paragraph does not protect anything," they say indignantly. "In fact, the opposite is the case: it was misused to extort us."

Police at the door

In April after Christoph's aunt reported them, the public prosecution department became interested in their intimate life. Karin let in the two policemen, who rang at her door. It was clean in the apartment, the policemen noted. And both of the accused had started crying because they feared someone would take away their child. Especially important to the officers seemed to be the health status of little Mia. The child was bright and well developed, they wrote. There were no hints of any genetic disorder. Despite all that, the public prosecutor’s office brought charges in June. Since then, this love has a file reference number. And since then both Karin and Christoph are having to fear their futures.

State attorneys should turn a blind eye to individual cases, where there is obviously no abuse taking place, recommends the minority in the ethics council – those that wanted to keep the prohibition.

But in the case of Karin and Christoph the public state attorneys have already declined the request to close the proceedings. The pair now hopes to get away with a fine. "The main thing is that there will be no public proceeding," says Karin, hopefully. "If there was then broadcasters might send camera teams to our doorstep. And Mia would probably be ostracized."

Photo: Landscape view on Paris, the French capital

Incest is not a crime in Germany if the child was conceived abroad in a country where incest is not illegal - like in France.

They needn’t fear being sent to jail, the lawyer says. After all, no one can prove that Mia was not conceived abroad - in Paris or Amsterdam, where incest among siblings is not punishable. "What kind of an absurd law is it, that dictates to me, with whom I may be happy?" Christoph asks. "All that has nothing to do with anyone apart from us."

And Karin adds: "There is a reason why there is no information in the section 'victim' in the police protocol. We are not harming anyone."

At least until now the immense external pressure has not harmed the half-siblings' affection for each other. Their looks tell how much they love each other. They are a family that is not allowed to be one. And it is probably that some day, they will want to grow that family. Then perhaps a weekend in Paris could be due: in the city of love.

The article was originally written by Christina Berndt, who is an editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung. It was originally published in German in the print edition on October 13th, 2014 and published online on January 14th, 2015. With her permission we translated the article into English.

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