Manama: The Doha Debates have voted overwhelmingly to discourage inter- marriage between blood relatives.

In a session that featured geneticists and cultural commentators, speakers grappled with the scientific and religious aspects of consanguineous marriage - the union of two biologically-related people, including, most controversially, first cousins.

The issue is highly sensitive in the Middle East where such marriages are particularly prevalent and woven deeply into its social fabric.

The motion ‘This House believes marriage between close family members should be discouraged' was eventually carried by 81 percent to 19.

British commentator and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor and Israeli geneticist Ohad Birk said consanguineous marriages prevented integration in society and increased the risk of children being born with severe physical and mental disabilities.

Birk, head of the Kahn Genetics Research Centre at Ben Gurion University, who has worked closely with Bedouin communities, made an emotional plea against marriage between first cousins.

"Last week I visited the home of a high school teacher and three of his kids aged 23, 20 and 18 are in diapers, severely mentally-retarded," he said. "These families send a very clear message: marry within your community, marry within your remote family, but do not marry your first cousin."

However, on the other side, Alan Bittles, a geneticist, and Samar Fatany, a Saudi Arabian writer and columnist, disputed the level of risk to children of consanguineous marriages and argued the social benefits outweighed the health problems.

Fatany argued that marrying a stranger outside of the family in parts of the Middle East was frowned upon and that marriage between blood relatives brought a family together and promoted social integration.

Manzoor's claim that British Pakistanis were 13 times more likely to produce children with genetic disorders than other groups in Britain sparked a tense exchange with Bittles, a professor with over 30 years of experience in same-blood marriages.

Bittles dismissed Manzoor's data as "spurious".