A Fundamentalist Mormon Town is Facing a Major Health Crisis Caused by Polygamy

There’s an isolated region in the United States where the children are more than a million times more likely to be born with fumarase deficiency, a metabolic disorder that causes severe mental defects and epileptic seizures, and it’s filled with Mormon fundamentalists who practice polygamy.

An image of Short Creek from a VICE documentary.
An image of Short Creek from a VICE documentary.

The community of Short Creek encompasses two cities on the border of Arizona and Utah, and it’s the location of the headquarters for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). About 75-80% of the people in Short Creek are blood relatives of the community’s founders, Joseph Jessop and John Barlow, making residents more susceptible to fumarase deficiency (which a 2007 article in Digital Journal said had the nickname “Polygamist downs”).

Mark Stoneking, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, explained to the BBC how starting a society where a few men have many wives can lead to problems with recessive genes:

With polygyny you’re decreasing the overall genetic diversity because a few men are having a disproportionate impact on the next generation… Random genetic mutations become more important.”

So, the problem in Short Creek isn’t necessarily caused by people having multiple partners. It’s the result of early Mormon teachings dictating that men need at least three wives to get into Heaven, which led to the practice of kicking out many teenage boys so older men can marry more young girls.

Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah, says girls as young as 14 are forced to marry men three times their age.

Similarly — and just as tragically — boys in the FLDS community, some as young as thirteen, are placed in compromising and dangerous situations. While it is difficult to determine the exact number, as many as 1,000 boys have been expelled from the community for breaking its strict standards since Warren Jeffs became the prophet. Breaking these standards involves doing things as simple as wearing short-sleeved shirts, listening to CDs, watching movies and TV, staying out past curfew and having a girlfriend. According to experts, these “lost boys” are banished from their community primarily in order to minimize competition for older men seeking to marry child-brides.

This practice of reducing the number of boys doesn’t just make way for more young girls to be married off to older men. It also shrinks the gene pool, making it more likely that a recessive gene can have a major impact.

According to the BBC’s report:

In wild deer and sage grouse, as in Mormon cults, polygyny is associated with high levels of inbreeding, because it shrinks the number of males contributing to the gene pool and increases the relatedness of the entire community… The fumarase deficiency gene has been traced to Joseph Jessop and his first wife, Martha Yeates (14 children). One of their daughters went on to marry co-founder John Barlow — and the rest is history. Today the number of people carrying the fumarase gene in Short Creek is thought to be in the thousands.

It’s important to note that this isn’t some twisted version of Mormonism. These are the rules put in place by its founder, Brigham Young, who had 55 wives and 59 children. He said monogamy is “nothing but a system established by a set of robbers.”

Why do we believe in and practice polygamy? Because the Lord introduced it to his servants in a revelation given to Joseph Smith, and the Lord’s servants have always practiced it. ‘And is that religion popular in heaven?’ It is the only popular religion there…”

While it is true that the Mormon Church has distanced itself from these teachings since polygamy was made illegal in the United States, that doesn’t undo what has already been done to the sufferers of this debilitating disease in Short Creek. Unfortunately, the best we can do now is study this community and learn from its mistakes.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

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