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Commentary: Michael Gilding &
"Rampant Misattributed Paternity: the Creation of an Urban Myth"

"Rampant Misattributed Paternity: the Creation of an Urban Myth"
Professor Michael Gilding, Director of the Australian Centre for Emerging Technologies and Society, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne
People and Place, vol 13, no 2, 2005

The commentary on the article follows the preliminary comments by Child Support Analysis. Only a minority of the original paper is quoted in the left hand column. It is quoted in sequence.

Preliminary comments by Child Support Analysis

This website provides informal definitions of such terms as "misattributed paternity" and "paternity fraud":

Michael Gilding Commentary by Child Support Analysis
"Rampant Misattributed Paternity: the Creation of an Urban Myth"

The first three words were well chosen. They make it clear that Michael Gilding is commenting on whether the phenomenon is rampant, not whether it exists at all. And they identify that this paper is about the non-judgemental topic of "misattributed paternity", not the far narrower, and more emotive, topic of "paternity fraud".

Unfortunately, Swinburne University publicised this paper as "Rampant paternity fraud an 'urban myth'", which is different. And the media corrupted the meaning even further with nonsense such as "Paternity fraud is an urban myth"!

The best available data on paternity testing has come from the United States. There the American Association of Blood Banks, the main regulatory agency, conducts an annual survey of laboratories.... In the most recently published 2003 survey ... there were 354,011 cases of paternity testing, amounting to 0.125 per cent of the US population. Results were provided for 353.387 cases, of which 99,174 - or 28 per cent, were exclusions. That is, 28 per cent of putative fathers were found not to be the biological father.

That is not how to interpret these statistics. They are simply the statistics for paternity tests, and say little reliable about the nature of the population being testing.

It is likely, but not certain, that the true rate of non-paternity in that sub-population concerned is less than 28%. Some of the exclusions may be an exaggeration caused by the legal processes being followed, and these will differ from one country to another.

There is no reliable data on the number of tests or exclusions in Australia.... The largest provider ... also told a government enquiry in 2002 that the exclusion rate was about 20 per cent, although it was less - only about 10 per cent - for those tests that were done without the knowledge or consent of the mother.

The problem with these figures is self-evident. They come from a small, self-selecting part of the population .... By definition, the clients of these laboratories have grounds to question the biological paternity of their children.... unmarried mothers who want to enforce child support from reluctant fathers ... men who have doubts about their partners or ex-partners.

Another submission to the same enquiry said: "... a large provider of parentage testing services reported that its rate of non-paternity in motherless tests was 10%, whereas the rate for tests involving all parties was 22%; and a smaller accredited laboratory reported that its rate of non-paternity for motherless tests was 11%, while its rate with traditional testing was 31.6%". That 10% may be a good predictor of the underlying rate.

Yes, they come from that small part of the population. And it is precisely that part of the population for which the claims of "paternity fraud" arise! Any meaningful discussion of "the rate of paternity fraud" is related to these statistics, not to the rate of misattributed paternity for the general population.

There are at least three parties that have promoted this particular urban myth or pseudofact. First, there are the fathers' rights activists.... Fathers' rights activists have mobilised around DNA paternity testing as part of a broader campaign against what they regard as an unjust socio-political system biased in favour of mothers in disputes about child support and custody.

Why does "paternity fraud" gain little attention in the UK, compared with Australia, and even more so the USA? Probably because the UK has a fairly strict "biological liability" policy for child support cases. It is normally easy to have a paternity test, and typically a man who proves not to the biological father can have any payments refunded, probably by the state not the mother.

Such paternity testing, with typical exclusions of between 10% & 15%, have defused this explosive topic in the UK. Here is a lesson for Australia and the USA.

Activists cite high rates of non-paternity to support their claims of paternity fraud.... For example, a website that solicits campaign funds for a high-profile paternity fraud case in Victoria declares:
"It is estimated that at least 25 per cent of children living in the western world aren't the biological offspring of their legal fathers".

Yes, some fathers' rights activists use statistics such as this. As Michael Gilding reveals, there is no case for this statement, and the truth is perhaps an order of magnitude less over the total population.

But fathers' rights activists are unwise even to discuss the general rate of misattributed paternity in the Western world. What has it to do with their case? They want action taken for the sub-population where paternity deception may be used for financial gain, ("fraud"), typically in child support cases. They should focus on that sub-population. Paternity fraud exists, and Michael Gilding did not attempt to identify the number of cases.

The evidence on the extent of misattributed paternity is thin, but statements are made with so much authority. Yet we know more now than we did in 1991. On the whole, the evidence suggests relatively low rates of misattributed paternity, at least in Western countries - perhaps between one per cent and three per cent. Although we have more evidence than we once did, inflated estimates of no-paternity get more currency than ever. Such estimates amount to an urban myth, or a "pseudofact"....

That statement hides something important. And that is that there is not a consistent rate across the whole population. Michael Gilding makes that clear elsewhere in this paper. This fact, (not pseudofact), mustn't be casually dismissed.

Fathers' rights activists should focus on their "constituency", typically broken families. And Michael Gilding and others should make it clear that their own statements about the population as a whole don't apply to that "broken family" constituency.

Paternity testing has profound implications and its regulation warrants careful attention. But this is not because misattributed paternity is rampant. The urban myth of high non-paternity rates is driven by the alienated fantasies of fathers' rights activists, the commercial interests of the paternity testing industry, and the ideology of sociobiology, circulated through the Internet and the media. This is not a sound basis for good analysis or effective regulation. It is time to get real about misattributed paternity.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Recognise that a number of different concepts are being discussed here. There is "non-paternity", a term for a simple all-embracing datum. There is "misattributed paternity", a non-judgemental term for the case where the man's belief in his paternity is wrong, whatever the reason. And there is "paternity fraud", involving deception with financial gain.

2. Recognise that different sub-populations have different rates for each of these concepts. And that the legal and policy implications differ considerably.

3. All parties should identify the scope of their statistics, discussions, and proposals, so that changes can be focused where they are relevant, with few unwanted side-effects.

4. All parties should accept that the rate of misattributed paternity in the total population says nothing useful about the rate of paternity fraud in the sub-population at risk.

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