Peace of mind?
In the UK, across the Western world, and elsewhere too, a proportion of children born have a paternity that would be a surprise to the husband or male partner of the mother. This fact has shown up many times. A minority of women and men "play away", and sometimes the result is a child. (It is variously called non-paternity or misattributed paternity or misattributed fatherhood).
But this is a minority! Estimates vary, but perhaps at most 1 child in 10 is not a biological child of the man who believes he is the biological father, and the average across a whole nation is probably much less than that. So probably at least 9 times out of 10 all is OK. But doubts can trouble both men and children, and can damage relationships even in the vast majority of cases where all is well.
Many paternity testing services across the world offer tests that are variously known as "peace of mind paternity tests" or "personal paternity tests" or "curiosity paternity tests". These typically use DNA samples that are easy to collect from both man and child, and do not need a sample from the mother. So they are also known as "motherless tests". They are typically supplied in the form of a "home testing kit", although it is only the taking of the samples that is done at home. The testing is done in a laboratory.
Paternity tests give one of 2 results: either "no, you are certainly not biologically father and child", or "yes, you are almost certainly biologically father and child". Note the "almost" in the latter case - it is impossible to be absolutely certain that they are father and child, but the probability is typically so high that there should be no further worry. After all, the test result is not the only evidence. They already expect that they could be father and child, so the combination of that expectation plus the paternity test should resolve doubt.
Paternity testing services
There are many such paternity testing organisations available across the world, and many of these provide a service by post. Different organisations offer different ranges of options. The number of such organisations increases year by year, and there are very many visible on the Internet. Here are many of them:
Some organisations only offer tests oriented towards official uses, in which case there will be a number of formal procedures, including permission from all relevant parties, probably samples from the mother as well, a "chain of custody" for the samples, and results that will stand up in court. These are not "peace of mind" tests, but they are the sort of tests used by the Child Support Agency. Some organisations offer a variety of options, including both official tests and peace of mind tests. Some organisations do not offer tests suitable for official purposes. Some organisations offer various other options, including sibling tests, and even fatherless tests (by testing known relatives of the alleged father). Sometimes the term "home testing kit" (or similar) is used to mean that this is an uunofficial test without a chain of custody.
The samples needed are typically a swab from inside the cheek (a "buccal swab"), or a few hairs with follicles attached. Some organisations can test other samples, such as chewed gum, cigarette butts, or even a toothbrush, although these run the risk of not supplying sufficient DNA. The price of a test may be the equivalent of £129 to £250, and results may take days or a few weeks. These services themselves are legal, and using them is also legal, as long as general laws are obeyed. However, some people would like to make the services, or the use of them, illegal.
Here is a list of services discovered using the above searches, etc:
First, consider this rare example:
Second - does paternity matter? This can only be decided by the person concerned. I believe that ethically a person has a right to know about his or her direct biological relationships, without needing to justify this knowledge, but doesn't have a responsibility to know. The ethics are explored at length in Appendix D of:
Warning. I have been told by private correspondence of serious quality problems with some paternity test service providers.
The media's attitude to paternity tests
These "peace of mind" paternity tests tend to have a bad press. Newspaper articles tend to portray men who use such tests as sneaky people doing underhand actions with malicious intentions. But this is misleading. Such men simply want to know something important that others probably already know. These unofficial paternity tests don't have the official standing to change formal relationships. If men want to see if they can legally avoid paying child support, they need to take an official test, and in that case the mother can in some circumstances be forced to cooperate. Unofficial tests are actually less traumatic - but they disturb people because they give a man some knowledge that others would rather he didn't have.
So the press attitude (possibly reflecting political and even societal opinion) towards paternity tests tends to be:
A theme of this web site is the need to have a balanced set of rights and responsibilities among all those involved. Personal knowledge of this sort too important to be censored just because people are afraid that a minority of women will be shown to have committed adultery and had a child as a result. This whole topic is about controlling knowledge, because "knowledge is power", and these tests offer the possibility of equalising this power for the first time in history.
Society's attitude towards paternity tests
Society will never see people who commission paternity tests as wrongdoers to the extent that society (say) sees people who commission child pornography as wrongdoers. There are 2 fundamental reasons for this:
Many people, sometimes wrong legally but often with good cause, feel a sense of outrage at legal sanctions applied to a victim. They feel a sense of injustice if a victim of burglary kills or seriously injures the criminal and is penalised for it. They would certainly feel a sense of injustice if the victim of a mugging were to be prosecuted for trying to identify the mugger, for example by photographing him or following him home and investigating him.
The legal sanction concerns whether the response to the undisputed wrongdoing (burglary or mugging, or whatever) is "proportionate", or excessive. Opinions differ at different times and in different nations. But now consider "personal knowledge paternity tests". The response is simply to gain personal knowledge. Will gaining personal knowledge ever be validly considered to be "excessive" by society? There will never be a consensus that it is excessive.
Dr Lyn Turney's paper arrives at a significant conclusion: "In conclusion, exposing the social and human networks within which paternity testing technology is embedded enables us to make a distinction between what the technology can tell us and what we do with that knowledge. Human beings are makers of meaning. It is at the level of interpreting the meaning of the test and what it reveals that we stand capable of making a change to how we use paternity testing technology in a way that does justice to children, as well as women and men. At a broader level though, we need to engage in open public debate about family policy, parenthood, identity and exactly how we want to use this technology and what meaning we want to affix to what it reveals."
Precisely! This paper lifts the discussion from concerns about technology, to recognition that this topic is really about knowledge. Therefore the important issues are about who is allowed to have which knowledge, what they should be able to do with it, and what impact there is from merely having the knowledge. All important social and ethical issues about paternity testing arise from the knowledge, not from the technology.
What motivates a man to have an "only man and child" paternity test?
It is important to identify men's motives. Are these socially tolerable motives? Are they plausibly legitimate? Can they be satisfied by some other means? Can they be suppressed?
Men's motives are linked to what they can do differently once they know the results. The more things they can do differently, the wider the range of motives will be. It is only things that can be done differently afterwards that can become problems. If there is little that a man can do differently as a result of the test, then his motives must be simple ones, and there are likely to be few problems.
It is informative to examine the use of these tests in different countries. This helps identify any special motives arising from a particular country's laws. For example, an Australian court may refuse to order an official paternity test unless a man has "an honest, bona fide and reasonable belief that there is a doubt as to the child's parentage". (ALRC 96 35.33). So perhaps a man may use an unofficial test as evidence of that belief to persuade a court to order an official test. But in the UK, it is typically easier to get an official paternity test without having to accumulate such evidence, so this is not a motivation for men in the UK. So, there are core motivations that appear in all countries, because they are inherent in the nature of these tests. Then there are extra motivations that arise because of special features of some countries.
The primary core motive is that many men seek private knowledge about something important to them, namely, whether they are the biological father of a particular child. These have been called "personal knowledge paternity tests" for this reason. An additional core motive for some of those men is that they are then able to make informed decisions rather than uninformed decisions. But the core motives do not include having extra things they can do, because generally there are no such things. Whatever he can do after the paternity test, he could do before it.
Many men (and women) believe that these core motives are: socially tolerable; plausibly legitimate; cannot be satisfied by some other means; and cannot be suppressed. They believe this has never been satisfactorily refuted. On the latter point, they are probably correct. To the men involved, it should be no one else's business that they want this personal knowledge. Why is private knowledge about oneself of such interest to others that they feel the law has to be invoked? This is equivalent to "thought policing".
(If a man finds out some other way, should he have that knowledge deleted from his brain? Or is it OK to have the knowledge, and only wrong to seek the knowledge? Or even, only wrong to seek the knowledge via one particular method, DNA paternity tests? It is about time that opponents of paternity tests explicity identified whether their objections are to the tests, or the knowledge, or the seeking of the knowledge).
What doesn't motivate a man to have an "only man and child" paternity test?
It is typically not to find out if his partner had an affair. He may already know, or strongly suspect, the answer to that! And a paternity test has "low sensitivity" for the detection of affairs. About 90% of the time it is positive, and then he learns nothing about any affair. (If a man really is trying to find out if his partner had an affair, the other things he does are likely to be more intrusive than a motherless paternity test!)
It is typically not to find out who the biological father of the child is. If it is negative, he does not learn this, yet he is unlikely to continue in order to find out. Besides, many already know, or strongly suspect, the answer!
It is typically not to escape from child support obligations, or to fight custody battles, if the country has sensible paternity testing laws for this purpose. When paternity is a factor in any case, it should be easy to have an official paternity test to decide the matter. If obstacles are put in the way of getting an official test, for example by requiring him to provide evidence of the need for such a test before it will be provided, then that obstacle is the real problem. Only a silly system forces a man to use secret tests in order to accumulate evidence before getting an official test!
What are the policy requirements for "only man and child" paternity tests?
Use of these paternity tests, and any disruptions caused by their results, are symptoms of problems in society and in families. The tests are only the messengers, not the real problems. The real problems should be addressed, not covered up. The policy requirements are inherent in the above discussion:
1. There should be no legal or procedural need for a man to have one of these paternity tests other than for the core motives. If men feel they need to use one of these tests to overcome an obstacle in "the system", that obstacle should be removed.
2. If "1" is achieved, then it should be made impossible to use such a test for anything other than personal knowledge. For example, the certificate should not identify any person whose involvement is not proved by a chain of custody. That means that no name should appear simply because the paternity testing services was given the name by the commissioner.
|Page last updated: 16 March, 2006||© Copyright Barry Pearson 2003|