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Paternity testing: how to progress

15 August 2005
By Dr Ainsley Newson
research associate, Imperial College London
Appeared in BioNews 320
If statements on paternity testing websites are to be believed, the decision to have a paternity test is a straightforward process for the curious father. Send away for a free, no-obligation kit, post it back with your samples and your results will be available (by phone, mail or online) within 5 days - all for around £119.

Yet for most men, the decision to take a paternity test will be much more difficult. A father may have endured years of doubt about his child's paternity before deciding to find out for sure. And once the decision to take the test has been made, many fathers may be unprepared for the emotional, legal and financial fallout from the results. The wide availability, technical simplicity and non-invasiveness of modern testing may also blind families to the devastation that non-paternity may bring.

Although paternity testing in Britain is regulated by a voluntary code of practice that does account for ethical issues, the recent study published by a team at the Liverpool John Moores University further highlights the need for more research into how a finding of 'parental discrepancy' impacts not only fathers and children but the broader family. At present, findings of non-paternity are assumed to have a devastating impact, one that could destroy families, but the empirical validity of these assumptions remains unknown.

We also need a broader debate on the value of this knowledge. While some believe that 'ignorance is bliss', others argue that our lives are better if we obtain all accessible knowledge about ourselves. This age-old debate about the value of knowledge is unlikely to be solved any time soon, but those commissioning paternity tests should be encouraged to think about their own attitudes towards the meaning of paternity. For many fathers, knowledge of biological kinship is fundamental to the parent-child relationship: some groups have even called for compulsory paternity testing at birth, arguing that this is the simplest and least-heartbreaking solution.

A related issue requiring further discussion is the very nature of parenthood itself - what is it that makes a person a parent? Whether the discipline is philosophy, psychology, sociology or law, a single concept or argument cannot explain this notion. And the status of biological and social bonds has been little explored in the context of paternity testing. While genetic inheritance has health implications and children's rights to know their biological parents have been legally recognised, social bonds are also important to family life and mustn't be overlooked.

Much has been said about the rights and interests of fathers who commission paternity tests. Less attention has been directed, however, towards children caught up in testing, save for the recognition that testing should only be done if in their 'best interests'. But what does this mean? More ethical, social and psychological research is needed to determine the effects of paternity testing on children, examining the affect on parent-child bonds, children's personal identity and wider family relationships. Additionally, in undertaking testing, any child who is old enough to understand and reason about the implications of the test should be asked for their views before the test is carried out.

Overall, anyone considering a paternity test should be encouraged to think about their values and attitudes and be given ample opportunity to reflect on the potential results before proceeding. Ideally, counselling should be available - whether from the testing provider or elsewhere. The Human Genetics Commission is monitoring this industry and it is hoped further recommendations to supplement or re-vamp the code of practice will be made in future. Whilst it would be unwarranted to demand that access to paternity testing be restricted (after all, informed consumers generally have the right to choose from a range of options), we need to ensure that such tests are handled sensitively and appropriately.

Ainsley Newson is a Research Associate in the Medical Ethics Unit at Imperial College London, in conjunction with the London IDEAS Genetics Knowledge Park. She is currently a British Association Media Fellow at The Times. Read her Fellowship diary here.

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