"The truth is out there" - Commentary on "Move to outlaw secret DNA testing by fathers"
by Barry Pearson
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Appendix A: Paternity tests for personal knowledge

Classes of paternity tests

Consideration of the practice and guidance for paternity testing services in the UK has tended to be based on the use of such tests for “official” purposes. But that is just one purpose; two types of paternity testing services are contrasted here, and reflect purposes with different quality criteria. Some suppliers on the Internet offer both types at different prices.

Because these purposes differ in so many ways, the rules for each must be considered separately. Only by considering them separately will their special natures be treated properly.

Paternity testing services for “official” purposes

Here, the results of the test are to satisfy some “official” purpose, such as child support or immigration or a paternity determination by a court.

Given that the results of the test will formally change the status of the people involved, it is vitally important that the service performs to a known, high, quality, and that the "chain of custody" is maintained to prevent fraud. It almost certainly needs to be accredited by authorities in the country concerned (such as the UK), and will typically be based in that country. Since the result is likely to be formally disseminated, the impact on all concerned must be taken into account.

Much of the UK’s existing “Code of Practice and Guidance on Genetic Paternity Testing Services” (Department of Health, April 2001) is focused on the above requirements. The rules for these tests do not need further discussion here.

Paternity testing services for personal knowledge

These are sometimes called "peace of mind" tests. They are simply meant to inform the person who commissioned the test. Further actions may result from this but they will then be informed actions (which may well include taking extra "official" tests), instead of actions based on ignorance and doubt. Most tests will simply confirm the presumed biological relationship, and doubts will disappear!

Therefore, the quality of the service needs to be sufficient to satisfy the commissioner that the "yes" or "no" answer is accurate. There is no issue about fraud so there is no need for a chain of custody, and the commissioner of the test has probably already considered the impact of both "yes" and "no" answers. The service may be based anywhere in the world.

Obviously, it is desirable that the commissioner can choose a high quality service rather than rely on services of unknown quality.

Proposed rules for “peace of mind” paternity tests

The only paternity tests discussed below are those where the person commissioning the test is one of the two people (man and child) involved. So this proposal is restricted to paternity testing services intended to answer the questions “is that person my biological child?” or “is that person my biological father?” (There is probably a case for being able to answer the question “is that person my biological mother?” but that is not pursued here).

The proposed rules for "peace of mind" tests, based on the ethics discussed in Appendix D, are:

1. For the purposes of this paper only, the person commissioning the test is one of those being tested. This is simply to focus the scope of this paper. It is not intended to restrict what other people may propose elsewhere.
2. There is no need to obtain the permission of the mother. Why should a mother's permission be needed for a man to determine whether he is biologically related to a particular child? Why should a mother's permission be needed for a child to determine whether he or she is biologically related to a particular man? Obviously, the possibility that the result may reveal that the mother was "playing away" must not give her a veto on the test!
3. There is no need to obtain the permission of the other party, as long as general laws have been obeyed. This is about personal knowledge, gained legally. It is little different from other knowledge of a similar nature, already available, such as observation of facial or bodily similarity, or perhaps asking the person what their blood donor booklet says about their blood type, etc.
4. There must be no contravention of laws established for the general good outside the arena of paternity determination, for example laws of assault, theft, privacy, harassment, data protection, and similar. The position of this paper is that the general law of the land must be followed, but there should not be special law that either makes exceptions to this, or that adds restrictions to this. This rule is really about how samples are obtained. People leave a trail of their DNA wherever they go. Whatever the rules are about exploiting this for other purposes, it should be OK to exploit them for personal knowledge – for “peace of mind” paternity tests.
5. Since the test is for personal knowledge, any services may be used. This is little more than a statement of the de facto situation. But it would desirable to encourage “peace of mind” services to be established with known high quality, instead of simply forcing people to commission tests of doubtful quality by denying them quality tests.
6. The results returned must not identify the subjects. Unless there is a proper chain of custody, the testing service doesn't confidently know the identities of the subjects. The results of the test must not record subject details, for example names, supplied by the commissioner. This ensures that the commissioner can't make improper use of the test certificate, because it will simply say "Subject 1 is / is not the parent of Subject 2", which only provides knowledge to those involved in the commissioning of the test. Only the commissioner(s) should know what the certificate means.

The limits on “the right to know”

How much should any particular person know? This paper makes two specific proposals:

1. No one should be forced to know anything about biological relationships, except where these are dictated by someone else's valid need to know, as identified below. Instead, the knowledge should be made available to them if they choose to learn it.
2. The maximum that any person has a right to know is: "is person X my mother/father?" or "is person Y my son/daughter?" (There is no right to have answers to questions such as "who is the father of my wife's child?" or "who are my grandparents?") The test solely identifies a biological relationship, not the data needed to identify genetic characteristics and disorders. Therefore, the moral and ethical problems, and issues of privacy and commercial exploitation, are simpler and more controllable than all other uses of genetic tests. It is possible to legislate for this case in isolation.

Even this knowledge may have to be further limited. Some questions may appear valid, but in practice would be intrusive: "is Tony Blair my father?" However, these details are merely distractions - the cases that are most obviously valid lie within known family members, and difficulty with peripheral cases must not distract from the central cases.

(An application for child support could also name Tony Blair, and would presumably be dealt with discretely and without intrusion. Malicious and frivolous claims can be handled).

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