"A matter of opinion" - Unofficial paternity tests and the impacts on children
by Barry Pearson
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The outcomes for children

This section examines a hypothesis:

On average, unofficial motherless paternity tests improve the outcomes for children.

This may be counter-intuitive to many. The research needed to confirm this has not been done. But neither has the research needed to refute it. This section presents the argument.

How can paternity tests be good for children?

This hypothesis does not assert that all children will be at least as well off if unofficial motherless paternity tests are readily available. It is likely that, of all the children affected by the ready availability of such paternity tests, some will be worse off. It will be possible to present anecdotes where a child has undoubtedly become worse off.

The hypothesis is that many children will be better off, and a far smaller number of children will be worse off. Even where children become worse off, there will often be mitigating circumstances. Sometimes the initial appearance of being worse off will be misleading.

These unofficial motherless paternity tests will tend to strengthen the vast majority of families where they are used, giving those families a better prognosis. That justifies the alternative name for such paternity tests: "peace of mind tests". The minority of families where such tests may prove disruptive are not "marriages made in heaven". It isn't obvious whether the children would be best off if the family remains intact or if it separates.

Paternity confirmed, 6 times out of 7

It has been reported that, of the men who have sufficient cause to commission a paternity test in the UK, 6 out of 7 are the biological father [2]. Look at this from the child's point of view:

- Would you rather spend your childhood being brought up by a father who suspects that you are not his child, and who is therefore also suspicious of your mother?
- Or would you rather spend your childhood being brought up by a father who has no doubt whatsoever that you are his own child?

In this vast majority of cases, the suspicions are unwarranted. The paternity test should put the father's relationship with both the mother and the child on a better basis. Their own reciprocal reactions should also be better as a result. And the father also knows that if the relationship breaks down, he will probably end up paying child support. So his mind may be focused on success! So the outcomes for many children should be improved.

Paternity denied, 1 time in 7

These are relationships where the mother committed adultery and had a child as a result. She then lied about the child's origins to the male partner, and probably to the child and to everyone else. She hasn't got total respect for her partner. He has become suspicious of her and wonders whether the child isn't his. This is not "a marriage made in heaven"! Even without a paternity test, the relationship may terminate early. Or it may be damaging to the child because of the lack of trust between the couple, and because of the man's suspicions.

A negative paternity test may well trigger the final separation. There is also the possibility that it will bring openness to the relationship that will enable it to continue [3]. This separation may have been inevitable, and the test has brought it forward. Or the separation may have a better outcome for the child than the dysfunctional relationship that would have continued without the test. It is not obvious that, on balance, the paternity test has made things worse.

An argument sometimes used against such paternity tests is that they are "terribly difficult for the child and … other siblings … all the things that they understood about their family become different". This supposes that the children will be informed by the unofficial test. That may not be the case. In fact, it is quite possible that they will find out some other way, for example as a result of an official test used by the Child Support Agency.

In this minority (1 in 7) of cases, it isn't a matter of a clear contrast between a good outcome and a bad one. It is a matter of the various parties trying the make the best of a bad situation. There is no reason to believe that this will be achieved more reliably if one or more of the people are unaware of the truth.

Tentative conclusion

These unofficial paternity tests do not deserve their bad press. In the vast majority of cases, they strengthen the family and improve the outcomes for children. Even if the children never learn about them. And while several other means exist which may reveal non-paternity, only paternity tests can assert paternity. They are the only technology for delivering good news.

In the minority of cases there is non-paternity. The research probably hasn't been done to know whether, on average, there is a better or a worse outcome for children. Bringing a child with misattributed paternity into a family creates a situation where there are likely to be serious uncertainties and probably losers. There is no reliable way of sorting out such a mess, and the best advice is:

"Do not find yourself in this situation"!

More research is needed. Overall, this analysis is compatible with (but doesn't prove) the original hypothesis:

On average, unofficial motherless paternity tests improve the outcomes for children.


[2] David Hartshorne, spokesman for Cellmark, said, "In about one case in seven, the presumed father turns out to be the wrong man". (Reported in Sunday Times by Lois Rogers, January 23rd 2000).

[3] Relate / Candis "Affairs Study", January 2000. "Two thirds of respondents (66 per cent) believe an affair is not always grounds for ending a relationship"…. "Most respondents (55 per cent) thought an affair could be forgiven, men claiming to be more forgiving then women (60% : 54%)".

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Page last updated: 12 December, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003