"A matter of opinion" - Unofficial paternity tests and the impacts on children
by Barry Pearson
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Do paternity tests deserve their bad press?

Genetic diagnosis runs all the risks of creating a "genetic underclass". There is no corresponding risk of a "misattributed paternity underclass". Illegitimacy has little or no stigma attached to it. It is (sadly) common for children to live in different homes from their biological fathers.

Knowing about a child's biological parentage isn't seen as an invasion of the child's privacy. DNA samples are easy to obtain without distress. There is no other need to regulate paternity tests in the same way as genetic tests. So why are there worries about paternity tests?

The real worries don't appear to be to do directly with children. The worries are to do with the difference between the "published statements" about a child's paternity and "the truth". Knowing the truth isn't inherently bad. It is the difference that is thought to be bad. Possible consequences are:

  1. These tests will reveal things that some mothers would prefer were never known.
  2. Some adults and some children will suffer from the consequences of "1".
  3. These tests will restrict women's reproductive choices in future.
  4. The genetic definition of the family may undermine the social definition of the family.

These are largely true, although of course an unofficial paternity test doesn't necessarily inform the child. But paternity tests are not the problems; they are the messengers. These problems have to be managed, not covered up.

If there were no misattributed paternity, would we still be concerned about paternity tests? No. They are not inherently wrong. Their danger isn't that they discover paternity. Their danger is that they discover misattributed paternity. Should nations legislate to hide errors?

What would be the consequences of legislation?

For those who still believe it is useful to restrict these tests by legislation, here is an important question. If suspicious men had to get the permission of mothers or courts in order to learn the truth about their paternity: in what way would this make things better for the children?

Some suspicious men commission motherless paternity tests. Consider the majority case, where the man really is the child's father. Would the children be better off if he were required by law to ask the mother's permission first? Would anyone be better off? It is unlikely.

Consider the minority case, where he is not the real father. Would the result be any better if he were required to ask the mother's permission first? Why would it make a difference?

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