"A matter of opinion" - Unofficial paternity tests and the impacts on children
by Barry Pearson
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This paper attempts to advance beyond the typical discussion of the topic of unofficial paternity tests. It doesn't spend much time and space discussing matters that have been thrashed out elsewhere.

One matter that this paper considers unimportant is the manner of collecting samples for DNA testing. Some paint a picture of men assaulting their putative children to obtain DNA samples. Others emphasise the unsavoury nature of sifting through dustbins for DNA samples [1]. These tales may well create distaste for paternity tests. But they fail to address the real issues. Those who raise those matters would still object to unofficial paternity tests even if they used DNA cast off days earlier by the child in the commissioner's own house. Or supplied in the form of saliva on an envelope that the child has sent to the putative father.

This topic isn't about biochemistry, or human tissues, or contraventions of laws on theft, assault, trespass, harassment, data protection, etc. There are already laws covering these. If it were really about these topics the answer would be simple: "we need more resources to police these laws". Perhaps we need to examine whether these laws need to be "tweaked" to cater for new technologies. But that is all. This is not a debate about physical things.

Another matter that is largely irrelevant here is "child support". Statements made about child support in the context of unofficial paternity testing are normally poorly informed. It happens that child support has an influence on the subject of unofficial paternity testing. But this is to justify it, not condemn it. Men should be able to discover any future child support liability.

Paternity testing is sometimes treated as a branch of medical science. It might be better to treat it as a branch of social science.

Many of the criticisms of these tests are wrong or misleading or incomplete. Instead of being factual objections to these tests, they appear to be surface expressions of some significant underlying disquiet and unease. It is likely that refuting these explicit statements would not satisfy the person who made them. These statements appear to be symptoms of the underlying unease, not causes of it. This raises the question "so what are the underlying issues?"

This topic is really about knowledge. It is about who has the right to seek certain types of knowledge, who has the right to control those seeking it, and who has the right to know what someone else knows. It is therefore also about privacy and power, especially of adults. This topic is about the changing balances of control of knowledge among men, women, children, and society during the 21st Century. Other issues are minor in comparison.

There are two different considerations. First, how do we deal with the families that exist today? Second, what should we do so that tomorrow's families don't pose the same problems as today's families? We shouldn't let the answer to the first question interfere with the answer to the second question. It would be good if this were the last generation in which paternity testing was a serious concern.


[1] In California's Kerkorian verses Bing case, a private investigator searched through a dustbin. It was Bing's DNA in the dustbin, not a child's DNA. It was done for reasons that have no relevance in the UK.

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Page last updated: 25 July, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003