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Commentary: Lyn Turney et al &
"DNA Paternity Testing: Public Perceptions And The Influence Of Gender"

"DNA Paternity Testing: Public Perceptions And The Influence Of Gender"
by Lyn Turney, Michael Gilding, Christine Critchley, Penelope Shields, Lisa Bakacs, Kerrie-Anne Butler

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

Preliminary comments by Child Support Analysis
This paper by Lyn Turney, Michael Gilding, Christine Critchley, Penelope Shields, Lisa Bakacs, and Kerrie-Anne Butler, was cited in a paper with a commentary here. ("DNA paternity testing without the knowledge or consent of the mother"). The commentary below responds just to points that were not fully covered in the other commentary.
Women's participation in reproductive technology

If feminist literature (eg. [1]) were to be believed, men monopolise technology, and women have been excluded from the development and control of it, including reproductive technology. That is nonsense!

Arguably the two the most important government-appointed bodies in the UK on this topic are the Human Genetics Commission, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. A glance at the membership of the HGC, and the membership of the HFEA, and examination of the CVs of those members, will show that women are well represented. (At the time of writing, 2005-08-08). Both chairs are women, and have been for years. Women also appear as members, in their own right as UK experts or managers in these science and technology domains. And, of course, one of the UK's most influential thinkers on these topics for decades has been Helen Mary Warnock, Baroness Warnock.

It is abhorrent for anyone, men or women, to coerce women to become pregnant and give birth. However, vastly many women actually want to go through this process. The problems that then arise are not of men's making. The whole process remains only marginally safe on average for women and children. Both men and women want the process to be safer. Both men and women are involved in developing and exploiting the sciences and technologies to make this happen. And, where women want to control whether and when they actually go through the process, both men and women have helped develop a range of female contraceptives and fertility treatments.

[1] Wacjman, J. 1991. "Feminism Confronts Technology", Allen & Unwin, Sydney

Laws and culture

Whatever perceptions are shaped purely by "gender", strong elements are shaped by laws and processes, and others by culture. Consider this from [1], showing different cultural views of revealing misattributed paternity as a side effect of medical tests:

"In 1990, Wertz and colleagues surveyed more than 1000 clinical geneticists and genetic workers. 96% of respondents said the "protection of the mother's confidentiality over rides disclosure of true paternity". Of these, 80% reported that they would only tell the woman.... A larger survey in 1993 confirmed this trend but interestingly also asked (American) patients for their opinion. 75% (the majority of whom were women) thought the doctor ought to tell a man who asked about his paternity directly, compared with only 17% of Northern European doctors." [2]

And some perceptions identified in the following paper would seem strange in some other countries with different child support laws, for example the UK.

[1] Quote from: Anneke Lucassen, Michael Parker, "Revealing false paternity: some ethical considerations", THE LANCET • Vol 357 • March 31, 2001.

[2] Wertz DC. "Ethics and genetics in international perspective: results of a survey". In: Nippert I, Neitzel H, Wolff G, eds. "The new genetics: from research to health care". Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1999: 75–94.

Lyn Turney, et al Commentary by Child Support Analysis

First, the focus groups suggest that reliance upon the media as a source of information leads to a 'gendered perception' of DNA paternity testing in terms of 'paternity fraud' for both men and women. Second, the survey shows that women are significantly more likely to feel comfortable about DNA paternity testing where all parties have agreed to the test, consistent with a concern to establish paternal responsibility and child support. Finally, the focus groups suggest that having a personal stake in DNA paternity testing generates opinions that are polarised on the basis of gender. The gender dynamics of public perceptions on DNA paternity testing are likely to become more important as the tests become more widespread.

These issues are covered below. But all of these are governed by at least two very different factors:

1. Some perceptions of paternity testing will obviously be dependent on the inherently different reproductive roles of men and women. (The very name "paternity testing" illustrates this).

2. Other perceptions of paternity testing depend on the way the relevant nation or state handles paternity tests. Some perceptions identified below would seem strange in some other countries with different laws, for example the UK. Some adverse gender-biased perceptions would improve if laws were improved.

It is worth considering whether there would be any adverse perceptions of paternity testing if misattributed paternity didn't exist! Paternity testing is a messenger, and tends to suffer the fate of many previous messengers.

Body of paper
One of the first applications of DNA identity testing was parentage testing - or more to the point, paternity testing. The test meant that for the first time in human history it was possible to identify paternity and misattributed paternity with reasonable confidence. By implication, the test had ramifications for gender relationships and the family. As one government report observed, 'it not only provides information about related persons, but goes to the very nature and identity of the family itself' (ALRC 2002: 746). The tests - or more specifically, the relationships embedded in the tests and the ways in which the tests are used - highlighted the 'gender dimension' of new technology, often overlooked in sociological accounts of technology (Wajcman 1991: 22).

In fact, the first use was maternity testing! It was a "fatherless maternity test" that enabled a boy to enter the UK because the test showed he was the biological child of his mother who was already in the UK. This set a precedent for enabling more children to enter the UK if a DNA test showed they were the children of parents already in the UK.

It was often possible to identify "misattributed paternity" by other means, such as blood-oriented tests. Medical tests go back to 1939 or earlier. What is especially new is the ability to identify "paternity"! We started to be able to reveal the "bad news" more than 60 years ago, but convincingly demonstrating the "good news" is much more recent.

Second, 'paternity fraud proceedings' refer to those circumstances where a man seeks damages through civil action on account of having provided for children when in fact those children were not his own. Such cases have attracted high-profile media attention in Australia and other western countries (AAP 2002; Munro 2002; Stapleton 2002). For example, in November 2002 the national media reported a 'landmark paternity fraud decision' where the Victorian County Court awarded a man $70,000 compensation for 'pain and suffering, and loss of income', following the discovery that he was not the father of two out of three children from his former marriage (De Kretser 2002; Kelly 2002).

Worldwide, "paternity fraud proceedings" can be any means to correct the consequences of deception about paternity for financial gain. It may not involve civil action.

Child Support Analysis considers that only the aspect where Liam Magill's ex-wife deceived him and the CSA about paternity, or at least concealed doubts that would have enabled paternity to be resolved, was clear paternity fraud. (As a result, he paid 32% instead of 18% of his income for several years). The rest was certainly an impact of "misattributed paternity", but not what is normally regarded as paternity fraud.

Since the 1980s there has been a growing literature concerning the 'social shaping of technology'. In close connection, social scientists have explored the 'gendering of technology' (Wajcman 1991; Haraway 1991; Jananoff et al. 1995; MacKenzie & Wajcman 1999; Ettore 2002; Handwerker 2003). The main point of this literature has been the mutual constitution of gender and technology. Men and women (and masculinity and femininity) are shaped by technology in different ways; technology is shaped by men and women (and masculinity and femininity) in different ways.

The day before this sentence was first written, (2005-07-27), Eileen Collins, (mother, with degrees in mathematics & science, etc, and well over 6000 flying hours on 30 types of aircraft), commanded arguably the world's most important space flight so far of the century.

The "gendering of technology" is at most a matter of "overlapping bell curves"! Theories suggesting conflict between women and technology may be another way of distracting women from participating in and exploiting it.

In the case of paternity testing, it isn't the technology that is gendered, but the scenario into which the technology is placed. After all, a "motherless paternity test" is technologically identical to a "fatherless maternity test". If the latter were used to ensure that babies were correctly matched to their mothers after birth, the same technology would be perceived differently by women.

Like reproductive technologies, DNA parentage testing affects gender relationships in fundamental ways. In earlier times attribution of fatherhood depended upon social markers, notably marriage and registration on a birth certificate. In English law, for example, there was a 'marital presumption': 'If a husband, not physically incapable, was within the four seas of England during the period of gestation, the courts would not listen to evidence casting doubt on his paternity' (cited in Anderlik & Rothstein 2002: 222). This reliance upon social markers goes at least some of the way in explaining men's efforts to control women's sexuality in earlier times (Clark & Lewis 1977). DNA identity testing meant that it became possible to identify biological paternity with much more confidence.

"Fatherhood" has always had at least two bases: the basis in marriage; and the basis as a biological parent of the child of an unmarried mother.

This text on the left mixes two concepts that need to be kept separate, because they have different policy implications:

1. "Men's efforts to control women's sexuality" arose from human nature, because the gene pool developed from men who had done so sufficiently.

2. "Attribution of fatherhood ... upon social markers, notably marriage and registration on a birth certificate" arose from a practical need to avoid the impact of "bastardy" and ensure children were supported.

About the same time there also emerged a father's rights movement, antagonistic to feminism and the state (Anderlik & Rothstein 2002).

The primary focus of the "father's rights movement" was, and is, "father's rights"! Some of their focus is directed against those aspects of feminism and the state that appear to be opposed to "father's rights".

Some members of the "father's rights movement" let their pain and rage spill out in an inappropriate way. Rather as the pain and rage of some feminists spills out. That does not define the whole movement.

In this context, men - not women - were conspicuous in gender-based mobilisation around DNA-based paternity testing. As Anderlik and Rothstein observed, fathers' rights activists 'often believe that just as DNA evidence has revolutionized criminal law, so should it, in roughly parallel ways, lead to a revolution in family law' Anderlik & Rothstein 2002: 220). More specifically, they publicised 'paternity fraud' on their websites, creating hyperlinks with commercial providers of DNA identity testing; they rallied around high-profile legal cases where men sued their former partners for fraud in relation to child support payments, following the discovery of misattributed paternity (Anderlik & Rothstein 2002: 219-20); and they lobbied for ready accessibility of testing, irrespective of the wishes of mothers (Schneider & McLean 2000).

The "mobilisation around DNA-based paternity testing" is typically: lone mother need financial help; the state decides to help; the state wants to reduce expenditure by claiming from the father; and, at least where there has been no marriage, it becomes necessary to identify the father.

If lone mothers didn't request help from the state, there would be no child support, and little official paternity testing. Paternity testing is an aspect of evaluating a lone mother's request for assistance. It attempts to ensure that assistance comes from a demonstrably responsible party.

What is the alternative? Stick a pin in the phone book? If there isn't a credible alternative, it can't usefully be said to be gendered.

The six women with direct experience of DNA paternity tests had all been required to enforce the tests in order to become eligible for child support or gain a birth certificate (at least one was not claiming child support).
People asking for money typically have to show entitlement. Otherwise, of course, people who are not entitled would also try to get the money!
Briefly, the survey results indicated that Australians are very comfortable with DNA testing, and more specifically DNA paternity testing. They are not comfortable with DNA paternity testing where the mother has no knowledge of the test. The most consistent predictor of attitudes concerning DNA paternity testing is education, notably in relation to the controversial scenario of 'motherless testing'. Gender is a significant predictor of attitudes on DNA paternity testing where all parties have consented, but not for other scenarios.

Why? "Motherless testing" does not involve a mother in any effort. So why would she object?

(Obviously mothers at risk of being "found out" might object, and other women who sympathise with those mothers might also object, but does that matter?)

Participants - women and men - overwhelmingly understood the issue in terms of women who deceived their husbands. 'Trust' was a consistent point of reference, and it largely referred to whether or not men were able to trust women.

Yes, "trust" is key. But what has that got to do with paternity testing?

"Lack of trust" precedes paternity testing in a case, and historically existed long before paternity testing was available. Paternity testing sometimes follows "lack of trust", and is a means of recovering it.

In turn, participants consistently talked about 'family strife' and 'legal issues' arising from DNA paternity tests. When they did so, they mainly referred to the breakdown of trust following the discovery of misattributed paternity.

The original breakdown in such a relationship long preceded the discovery of "misattributed paternity". Perhaps it had its roots around the time of the affair, and afterwards when the mother decided to live a lie!

There was more diversity in relation to 'motherless testing', where testing occurred without the mother's knowledge. In this instance, the principle of the 'right to know' became more complex: that is, the father was seeking information, while denying information to the mother.

What information is the father seeking? Knowledge that is directly relevant, and vitally important, to him - whether he is the biological father of that child.

What information is he denying to the mother? That he is seeking that personal knowledge, then that he has that knowledge.

The types of knowledge that the respective parties are concealing do not have equal significance or value. How important does society think it is that a person knows whether someone else knows something? (Consider the equivalent difference between: "the wife conceals the state of their joint bank account"; and "the husband conceals that he knows the state of their joint bank account"!)

The tertiary male group was especially insistent upon the importance of process in relation to consent, converging around the view that legal or administrative avenues were required where couples could not agree on having a test.
This appears to be an issue wherever a state imposes apparently arbitrary and indeed silly obstacles towards getting a paternity test. 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). Such obstacles should be removed.

Private testing meant that men could know the truth about their fatherhood and then decide for themselves what they wanted to do with that knowledge. For example:

At present one may organise a test and see the result without the child knowing. It allows you to then think the next step very carefully. Just because one is not the DNA father does not mean you wish to step out of the child's life. (Fred)

From the perspective of these men, the issue of DNA paternity testing arose in the context of a socio-political system that was unjust and biased in favour of mothers. Women had the 'whip hand'; the Family Court and the Child Support Agency operated in the interests of women; and lawyers had been captured and corrupted by the system. Fathers were treated 'like criminals'. Court decisions meant that 'family law settlements and ongoing child support [were] a sentence into financial hell'.

The first part of that is correct. Men should be able to know something so important, and they should certainly be able to make informed rather than uninformed decisions.

But the final paragraph appears to come from a parallel universe! What has it got to do with private testing? Is this an attempt to deny the importance that many men place on paternity confidence, and instead to explain or excuse it as a consequence of the current legal system?

Done properly, private testing can't directly influence the Family Court and the Child Support Agency. Those inhabit a world of official paternity tests, not unofficial ones.

The process into which women were drawn by the denial of paternity was itself a public event that was protracted (women cited between 12 and 18 months) and expensive ($600 to $800 was quoted for an ordinary test where both parents provided consent). Women complained about the 'intrusive' and 'impersonal' character of the administrative and judicial system, including the Family Court: 'phone calls were not answered', 'information was difficult to access', and correspondence was 'full of legal jargon'.

This, of course, is about the legal processes of the state, and not about paternity testing per se. The impact could be overcome without changing the need for a test.

For example, in the UK, if paternity can be presumed, the man pays until he gets a negative result from a paternity test. If paternity can't be presumed, a paternity test can be arranged as an administrative procedure of the CSA, rather than needing to go to a court, and arrears accumulate in the meantime. The man pays for a positive test, the state pays for a negative test.

The women accepted that there was a place for paternity tests where paternity was uncertain. By the same token, they believed that men used paternity tests as a means to 'delay and thwart' access to child support payments, and as 'a way to punish their ex-partner, rather than out of any real concern about paternity'.
The women expressed deep concern about the destructive and long-lasting impact of the technology upon the father-child relationship and the 'ongoing "partnership" of parenting'. Relationships and communication were 'irreversibly damaged' through the process of DNA paternity testing. They also worried about the child finding out what had happened when they got older and the likelihood of it being a 'painful discovery'.

In the UK, about 16% of paternity tests administered by the CSA are negative. That illustrates how important they are, and suggests that all parties need to learn to tolerate them. There is no known alternative. This is not a problem invented by men! (It is a problem invented by nature, and exploited by some women).

Perhaps the ideal situation is that men have "motherless tests" in advance, and use the knowledge accordingly, without telling anyone that they have had the test. If the motherless test is positive, they should not bother with an official test. If it is negative, then the mother has only herself to blame.

As DNA paternity testing becomes more widespread and more people become 'stakeholders' in the technology, public perceptions will presumably become less tentative. There will be more at stake in how DNA paternity testing is generally understood and used. The gender dynamics arising from personal experience will become more important. DNA paternity testing will inform personal negotiation and social debates around marriage, sexual behaviour and child support.

Debates on this topic tend to make it appear that paternity testing is the problem. But it is only the messenger, and it is part of the solution. If misattributed paternity didn't exist, neither would paternity testing. But both are probably here to stay.

In which case, the answer is to accept paternity testing as a vital part of problem resolution, and instead of building barriers to it, exploit it as slickly as possible to resolve problems.

It will be interesting to see whether public perceptions in Australia moves towards the more relaxed USA position on paternity testing, which perhaps arises from less federal involvement in "the family". (See the preliminary comment before this commentary).

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