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What is a father?

25 August 2005
By Professor Heather Draper and Dr Jonathan Ives
Centre for Biomedical Ethics, University of Birmingham, UK
Appeared in BioNews 323
The recent finding by a research team at Liverpool John Moores University, that one in 25 men may be raising children to whom they are not genetically related, has given rise to number of newspaper articles claiming 'One in 25 fathers 'not the daddy''.

It might be argued that a claim like this is nonsensical because 'father' and 'daddy' mean the same thing. However, these recent features seem to tell us something else: that there is a difference between a 'father' and a 'daddy', and that this difference makes it possible to say 'a father is not a daddy' without becoming embroiled in contradiction. The difference is that a child might be genetically related to one man and being brought up by another man - presumably one that is not aware that he is not genetically related to the child. So which man is the father of the child?

We have always recognised through the practice of adoption that men who are not genetically related to a child can be perfectly good fathers to those children. In more recent times this has also been amply demonstrated in blended families and families made possible by sperm donation. However, this experience has also been accompanied by the uneasy feeling that out there, somewhere, is the 'real' father of the child. But what does this say about fathers by adoption, or sperm donation? Surely they are not fake fathers, only imagining themselves to be fathers or deluded about their place in the child's life? Likewise, there is a sense in which a man who has no contact with a child is no kind of father at all.

So are we wrong to think of the genetically related man as the 'real' father? To answer this question, we need to know what a father is and what it means to be a father. The answers to these questions will help us to understand whether it makes sense to draw and maintain a distinction between 'father' and 'daddy'. They might also help to determine what our response to the burgeoning paternity testing industry should be - for it is clear that paternity testing is being carried out not just in the context of fixing financial obligations towards the children of unmarried mothers, but is also increasingly wielded as a weapon within the context of family break-up.

A study currently underway at the University of Birmingham is setting out to look at the underlying questions of what a father is and what it means to be a father, and also to gather data on what men think the answers to these questions are. Over the course of three years, 12 focus groups are being run with men who have had varying experiences of fatherhood, broadly conceived. The study aims to find out what emphasis men place on genetic connectedness, existing social relations, intention and circumstances of conception, in generating paternal rights and responsibility. These lay opinions and their supporting arguments are being compared with the positions of philosophers, lawyers, and current social policy, to determine any congruency and/or discrepancy between lay and 'expert' opinion.

Preliminary results from the first three focus groups suggest that men don't think that paternal rights and responsibilities stem solely from a genetic connection but, rather, stem from the enactment of a fathering role, including the acceptance of 'paternal' responsibility and the development of a relationship with a child.  It is generally considered that the presence, or lack of, a genetic connection should not play a large part in the father/child relationship, and this is often summed up by phrases such as 'fatherhood's more than just a drop of sperm'. Interestingly, the focus groups have thrown up a distinction between 'father' and 'daddy', but the terms were used in the opposite way to the headlines. 'Daddy' or 'dad' was used to describe the man with sustained social contact, and 'father' the man who was genetically responsible for the child.

These initial findings may make us stop and question the value of paternity tests, and make us wonder if the practice should be permitted at all. If 'fatherhood' does not rest solely on biological facts, then the discovery of mis-attributed paternity should make no difference to the way a father feels about his child or the way a child feels about his or her father. The worry is that the emphasis placed on genetic paternity in the wake of studies such as the recent one from Liverpool may encourage people to focus on one small aspect of 'fatherhood', and lead to the devaluing of the social relationship in favour of the arguably less meaningful biological one.

A ban on paternity testing is unlikely. If anything, fanned by the use of paternity testing in determining child support, it is likely to be an expanding aspect of divorce settlements. Likewise, the medical risks of undisclosed paternity are clearly important and, insofar as it is important for a child to be aware of any congenital risk, the child must have access to relevant aspects of its genetic parent's medical history. But the potential harms are more than simply medical. Children can also be harmed by the loss of a parent, and there is a real chance that children may lose the only 'father' they have ever known when mis-attributed paternity is uncovered. But if being a father is about 'more than a drop of sperm' - it is not clear why infidelity within the parents' relationship should be allowed or encouraged to disrupt a man's relationship with his children.

Above all, if paternity tests must be carried out, either for medical reasons or because of suspected infidelity, men should be encouraged to think deeply about how the result will make them feel about their child. They must be made to ask the question 'is my love for my child contingent upon proof of my genetic paternity?' If the answer is 'yes', then the test may already be superfluous - he is arguably not a father in any meaningful sense to begin with, and the result of the test will not alter that.

1 September 2014 - by Dr Jonathan Ives 
Emma Cresswell, The Telegraph tells us, 'fought a six-year battle to have the man she thought was her father removed from her birth certificate' and now reportedly hopes that others will follow her example...
25 January 2009 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
Thousands of people every year in the US are having their DNA collected and analysed without their knowledge or consent, according to a report by the weekly science magazine, New Scientist. In an article published in the 24 January issue, the journal revealed their investigation into the...
15 August 2005 - by Dr Ainsley Newson 
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...
14 August 2005 - by BioNews 
Around one in 25 men could be unknowingly raising children to whom they are not biologically related, say UK researchers. The team, based at Liverpool John Moores University, has reviewed previous studies to estimate the rate of 'paternal discrepancy' worldwide. They found that the proportion of families in which a...
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