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"The truth is out there" - Commentary on "Move to outlaw secret DNA testing by fathers"
"Knowledge is bliss" - Towards a society without paternity surprises
What is the crime if men seek confirmation that children are theirs?
"A matter of opinion" - Unofficial paternity tests and the impacts on children
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Child Support & Paternity Establishment & the Genome Project

In future, how much knowledge should adults & children have about their genetic inheritance and genetic relationships? And what will the consequences be for the rights & responsibilities of bio & other parents for their children?

Within a decade or two the current laws & assumptions operating within "the Western World" will be radically transformed. The sooner authorities - governments & agencies & courts - start to change, the better. Tomorrow would be good!

Introduction

Historically it was often impossible to know who the bio-father of a child was. (It was normally pretty obvious who the bio-mother was. There was unmistakable evidence round about birth). In order to ensure that the child had a father of some description, there were "presumed paternity" laws/rules/principles.

In many (most?) nations & states there are still such laws. In the interests of the child, a man to act as father (presumed paternity) is identified, & he may have neither choice nor "blame". The rules are "in the interests of the child" - they are designed to ensure "that the child is not left fatherless".

The world is changing. Knowing who the bio-father ISN'T is trivial. Knowing who IS the bio-father is basically a search problem. And in fact the same applies to bio-mothers.

This wouldn't matter if bio-parentage were not important. "So you didn't have sex around the right time. But you were married to the bio-mother at the time. The child needs a father. You are IT". This may have been a sensible attitude in the past. Minor irrelevances (such as who got his leg over) are out-weighed by considerations for the children. That is the opinion of LOTS of other people. CHILDREN MATTER!

Now there are 2 VERY different topics that need to be discussed & settled:

  1. Do we identify & establish bio-relationships, and make these known to the adults & children involved? (Knowledge).
  2. What rights & responsibilities should follow from these bio-relationships? (Consequences).

This article discusses these questions. The rest of this article is separated into into "Knowledge" and "Consequences".

Knowledge

Should we try to understand the REAL bio-relationships? The answer is YES.

"Mr HIJ, your routine medical tells us that you have a genetic disorder PQR. 50% of your children are likely to have this disorder. If we can identify whether your children have this genetic disorder, we can treat them. They will need to take medication for the rest of their lives, but apart from that they will be able to lead normal lives".... "That's strange, those children don't appear to be yours. Have you any other children that you may have passed this disorder onto?".

"Mr HIJ, your new-born child, tested under our new enlightened laws, has a genetic disorder PQR, and we can save him. That means that you or your wife, or both, must also have PQR. If we can find out which, we can save your lives too".... That's strange, neither of you has PQR, so it must have come from elsewhere. We need to find that person to save his/her life".

However hard we try to find ways to avoid the need to know the genetic relationships among people, there are cases (such as the above) in which it matters – sometimes for health & life reasons. It appears (unfortunately) that it will be very important to know all of these things in future. The Human Genome Project offers many future opportunities to enhance or prolong life. Eventually it will simply be necessary to look at a person's own genome. But ... others are also potentially affected! (And many of these benefits do not depend on the Genome Project - they precede it, such as genes for breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease, even dyslexia. This isn't science fiction - the genie is already out of the bottle, and it was even during the last - 20th - century).

Cheap & convenient DNA tests ENABLE these "secrets" to be revealed, but something more is needed to CAUSE the facts to come out. This may be suspicion, or liability to pay for child support - but by themselves these will probably only affect a minority. But it will be spin-offs from the Human Genome Project that will trigger much wider knowledge of parentage. Within a decade there may be good reasons to screen all children. This won't directly reveal paternity surprises, but bio-parentage will often be an issue. For example, if the child has a genetic problem it may be important to know which parent it came from. And whether it is worthwhile testing children who have left home. Etc.

It is VERY likely that children "conceived away" this year (2001) will have their parentage brought to light while they are still growing up. Indeed, it is very likely that the same applies to children "conceived away" in the last few years! There may be millions of women who are going to be found out over the next decade or two.

Courts currently sometimes say that disrupting current assumptions about paternity, such as presumed paternity, are not in the interests of the children. But the above cases show otherwise for the future. Sometimes, the TRUTH, raw ungarnished TRUTH, such as which man got his leg over with which women, will be vital to enhance & prolong life. Perhaps the current rules won't stand for long in the face of this unrelenting juggernaut of perceived benefits. (Although this says "perceived benefits", consider the movie "Gattica" and decide whether these are "unqualified benefits". That movie was supposed to be science fiction - but it was too close to a potential truth for comfort).

We are in transition from a world of "presumed paternity" to a world of genetic truth. Different nations are different places along the path – the UK is further along for Child Support purposes than the USA, for example. We need to work out how to make the transition with the minimum of fuss & pain. Whether or not we work this out, the transition will happen anyway. There are too many reasons why it will continue even though some of the results are disquieting. Help! There may be a million children out there who are not the bio-children of the husbands concerned. There may be a million women out there who would prefer that the genetic truth of their children didn't become apparent to their husbands. (There are statistics such as 10%-30% of children born within marriage are not the bio-children of the husband. Now do the sums on the number of marriages this might affect!)

It may be better for all concerned if the truth didn't matter for the next 18 years, so that those children already born could grow up. It is unlikely that there is this long. Probably many of those women who already have children with "non-standard paternity" are sitting on a time bomb. They are already in trouble & simply haven't had it confirmed yet. But at least we should avoid the numbers increasing too much if we act soon. Within a decade or two it will be seen to be very important that children know who their bio-parents are, and vice-versa. And this will over-ride other considerations.

Consequences

So we know that man M is the bio-father of child C. Does that mean he is responsible for Child Support for C (if the parents have separated)?

Genetic truth can be found by looking down a microscope. Questions like this need society to judge. There are lots of ways that societies can determine who is financially responsible.

At one extreme it is simple. Wife has affair. Husband suspects & files for divorce. Wife has child as a result of the affair before the divorce. Should the husband have to support the child as a result of presumed paternity?

NO! If this case were not so nasty, it would be silly! Of course it is important for the man & child that the REAL bio-father be established and take over responsibility. The child and bio-father need to know of their relationship (for reasons described above). Wives must be discouraged from confusing the relationships (for reasons described above). This is not a moral issue (whatever that means) - to enhance & prolong life it will become vital to know of these relationships, & to have the incentives in place to uncover them instead of cover them up.

Once bio-relationships are seen to be vitally important, we need the means of identifying them, and reducing the complications from other relationships. We can't afford to have a future in which there is the dilemma of whether to go with the marriage-relationship or the bio-relationship. We appear to need to focus on the bio-relationship, and hope & expect that marriage-relationships will match.

The future needs to be one in which wives don't have children other than their husbands'. Then there can be openness about the genetic relationships that have to be understood to enhance & prolong life. How can we get there? Perhaps only with difficulty! But the sooner the changes start, the better. The longer it is before the changes start, the more women & children there will be in trouble.

Suppose a nation stated "in a year from this statement, paternity will be judged by DNA tests, not by presumed paternity". (And suppose that all wives were privately requested not to have children other than their husbands', because they would inevitably be found out). This would be part of the transition to the new genetic-relationship world. Wives who changed their policies would not be in danger. (This is not a moral point - they can still have sex with another man - simply not have his children).

But if courts continue to presume paternity, they are simply continuing for years the number of cases that will erupt when genetic-inheritance becomes of overwhelming importance.

Child Support

It is obvious to many that if a wife has an affair and the husband then divorces as a consequence, the husband should not be financially responsible for the child. Taxpayer's shouldn't either. So the bio-father should, along with the bio-mother. The child CAN still have a father - the bio-father.

Some would say that the bio-father should be able to disclaim responsibility. No. If the child is born, he should help support it. And if he never wanted to support it, he should have ensured that the child was not born. Which may mean he shouldn't have had the affair - there was no reason for him to believe he had a right to have an affair without the consequences.

But if a husband had looked after the child as his own for many years, what should his responsibilities be if he then discovers that the child isn't his bio-child? THIS gets complicated!

Ohio allows DNA testing to determine paternity within one year. After that, "presumed paternity" applies. Perhaps the logic is that after a year the emotional parenting takes precedence over bio-parenting. There is something to be said for that. As long as it doesn't hide the bio-parentage - that is important for reasons stated above.

There isn't an easy answer to this. Adoption is simple - it is formal. But what about long-term presumed paternity cases, where the father was unaware?

The ideal is - eliminate such cases. Then the issue goes away. Test children at birth, make the results known, get men & women to behave consistently with the knowledge that such tests will inevitably be performed, then they should avoid birth, and preferably avoid pregnancy, if they are unwilling to face the consequences.

This is a decade or two in the future. But children take a decade or two to grow up, and while they are doing so, the technologies talked about here will cause problems. So it is important to try to eliminate children, other than the husbands' children, being born to wives long before the full rules are implemented. The tests that reveal the affair may only be used in a decade's time. (I include men & women living together as husband & wife in the same principle).

For practical, not moral, reasons, it is useful that all children were wanted, or at least accepted, by the man & woman at time of sex. And that within marriages, (or man/woman partnerships), the only children born have the wife & husband as bio-parents.

Then bio-parentage, & parental rights & responsibilities, can be aligned. This is the long-term aim.

Page last updated: 27 August, 2005 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003