"The truth is out there" - Commentary on "Move to outlaw secret DNA testing by fathers"
by Barry Pearson
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The ethics of paternity tests to establish personal knowledge

A personal knowledge paternity test by itself does not have any direct affect whatsoever on anyone other than the person commissioning the test. Its sole affect is to provide the commissioner of the test with a piece of accurate information. The test certificate itself should not contain anyone's names, so it will have little meaning except to the commissioner.

Any impact on other people is the result of whatever the commissioner of the test freely and (hopefully) legally chooses to do as a result of gaining this newly obtained accurate information. Any consequences derive from the actions of a person with accurate knowledge.

These consequences need to be compared with the potential legal actions of that same person but with incomplete or inaccurate knowledge. Ethical considerations should always favour informed actions instead of uninformed actions.

Is it ever right to use paternity tests to identify biological relationships?

Yes. This follows from the answers to the questions above about personal knowledge, combined with other issues about “official” knowledge, for example for child support or immigration purposes.

(Public attitudes to human genetic information, page 30: “Similarly nine in ten are aware that human genetic information can be used to establish paternity and other family relationships, and over three-quarters say the information should be used for this purpose. Eleven per cent disagree with its use in this way.”)

Should there be restrictions on how a person finds out if he or she is the biological parent or the biological child of a particular person?

Yes. There are general laws on assault, theft, privacy, harassment, data protection, or similar laws. Unless authorised by a body defined in law, for example by a court, these general laws must be adhered to.

But there is no ethical reason for extra laws beyond this. Those laws will protect someone from immediate harm. The intention of the quest by a man of a child here is not to harm a person, but instead to learn about oneself. This learning should be permitted as long as the learning itself doesn't harm that person. It is always possible that a person will act differently as a result of learning the truth. But that is not a good reason for preventing that person from learning the truth; see earlier.

Need anyone else be aware if a person seeks to find out if he or she is the biological parent or the biological child of a particular person?

No. Just as there are few cases indeed where one person has a right to know that another person knows something, so there are few cases where one person has a right to know that another person seeks to know something.

A man's or a child's quest for knowledge about his or her biological relationships should be private if the man or the child wants it kept private. It is a breach of their privacy to cause a mother to be informed of their quest to identify their biological relationships.

Shouldn’t the mother have to give permission?

No. See above – there is no ethical reason even for her to be aware that the man knows the truth, or that he is seeking the truth. So her permission is irrelevant.

When it is a matter of the biological relationship between a man and a child, the mother has the least to learn but is potentially the most self-interested in the result. She cannot be relied upon or expected to act in the best interests of the child or of either of the men involved. She must not be allowed a veto, or be required to be involved in the quest of the child or husband to learn the truth about themselves.

Shouldn’t the other party have to give permission?

No. The purpose of the test is to gain personal knowledge, and this is covered earlier.

Should the other party (the man or the child as appropriate) have to give permission to have an expert examine photographs of the man and the child to detect a resemblance? No. DNA-based paternity testing is an extension of comparisons that have been used for centuries.

How old should a child be in order to request a paternity test (about some man)?

They probably need to be “Gillick competent”. This needs expert advice.

But see the news item quoted earlier about a 7-year-old boy being tested. It is probably best to assume that it is in the interests of children to have the right in principle to know their biological parents from the earliest possible date unless there are reasons to deny this.

Should the process of using a paternity test also be used potentially to reveal genetic characteristics of either person?

No. The use of junk DNA in order clarify biological relationships is vastly different from the use of genes or non-junk DNA to identify or predict bodily attributes. Every single ethical question needs completely different analysis and typically has a completely different answer for these very different cases.

(The supply of genetic tests direct to the public - A consultation document, July 2002, section 9: “There is also a Code of Practice on Genetic Paternity Testing Services, published in 2001, which sets out good practice for testing mothers, their children and putative fathers in order to establish parentage. Such tests generally involve a DNA test that is offered direct to the public, but we do not intend to deal with them at this stage of the review. This is a distinct area of testing which raises different issues, not least that it often involves the testing of third parties who are children. We feel that it is more appropriate to focus in this consultation on tests aimed at health and lifestyle issues. We will consider the subject of paternity testing at a later stage”).

Do any other sorts of paternity tests need to be considered?

Yes. But the conclusion from doing so is that paternity tests using DNA are simply one of many ways of clarifying parentage. There is no justification in imposing stronger regulations than on other methods of finding out, and where there are choices, DNA tests should be used in preference.

From the Inside Information Report's "List of conclusions and recommendations":

"We recommend that there be clear official guidelines for the use of DNA testing for child support and immigration control purposes.... In our view, such guidelines should state that DNA testing should only be used in situations where no other evidence is available."

Why? DNA testing is totally compatible with the policy of biological parentage liability. It is the most reliable method ever known. It is remarkably unobtrusive, totally safe, of known accuracy, credible and understood, cost-effective, repeatable, and even getting better year-by-year. The ethical principle here is that truth should take precedence over ambiguity.

Although this paper is largely about confidence in biological relationships as a result of genetic tests, such tests are just the latest in a series of ways of identifying paternity. What about "he has his fathers eyes"? (Or hair, or chin, or skin, etc). Do these statements contravene ethical principles? Do blood tests, rather than DNA tests, contravene such principles? Where could a line be drawn?

DNA tests are not different in principle from discussions about paternity that have taken place over centuries and even millennia. What singles out genetic tests for disquiet is their accuracy and reliability. Does improving the accuracy and reliability of information increase ethical problems? No! Accuracy and reliability reduce ethical problems, they don't increase them. The ethical follow-up to "he has your eyes" is "show me how you know".

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Page last updated: 2 July, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2002