"Knowledge is bliss"- Towards a society without paternity surprises
by Barry Pearson
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The nature of surprising paternity

It is worth clarifying the problem being addressed by this paper, because this identifies options for solutions. The problem arises from a sequence of three issues:

1. The "existence" issue: some children born into relationships have unexpected paternity because the mother "played away" without sufficient precautions. (This paper does not treat adultery as a separate issue; this paper is not about "morals").
2. The "delay" issue: there is often a significant delay before this becomes known (if it ever does), during which time various relationships become harder to reverse.
3. The "knowledge" issue: the unexpected paternity is then revealed. Men, women and children may then have their lives irreversibly disrupted.

It is tempting to see "3" as the problem, and to try to avoid the damage by preventing the truth being revealed. Obviously this simply amounts to papering over the cracks. Year by year it has less chance of success, largely as a result of the science and technology of genetics. For example, paternity testing services are increasingly available worldwide on the Internet; and diagnosis and therapy for genetic disorders will increasingly involve tracing relationships to identify others at risk, or potential carriers.

But it is also ethically wrong to hide such knowledge. The truth about biological relationships increasingly matters to many people. (See Appendix D for a discussion of the ethics concerned with knowledge of personal biological relationships).

People who were adopted have opportunities to find out about their biological parents if they choose. People born as a result of gamete donation are nowadays sometimes going to court to establish their rights to find out about their biological parents; it appears likely that laws and rules will make this easier in future. Men sometimes want to know about their possible future child support liabilities, so that they can plan their lives without the risk of gaining a new financial liability after they have committed to a different life. In some cases children can apply for child support from their parents, and they should be able to identify to whom they can apply. Many people simply want to know.

So it is ethically wrong and practically futile to plan to resolve this problem by constraints and censorship. It must be tackled more openly and honestly. What does the urge to cover up the truth say about a society? Typically, it says that the society has a serious problem.

One way, therefore, would be to reduce or avoid the delay in "2". This would reduce the bonding between man and child that may cause complications and heartache later. It would make it more likely that the biological father could become responsible. It would enable all people involved to make informed decisions instead of default decisions.

But, while this would be better than trying to achieve censorship, it is still not as good as preventing "1". If such children are not born, the whole problem goes away. "Prevention is better than cure". It should not be necessary to itemise the many ways of avoiding such children being born. And if such a child is born, a further option is to be honest about it from the start!

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Page last updated: 13 December, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2002