"The truth is out there" - Commentary on "Move to outlaw secret DNA testing by fathers"
by Barry Pearson
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Appendix D: Ethics of personal knowledge paternity tests

This is clearly an ethical minefield. There are up to 4 individual stakeholders: mother, presumed father, biological father, and child. These are potentially in conflict.

The primary ethical arena is “personal knowledge”. This is about people and their desires and drives, in the context of society. This transcends tactical mechanisms and technologies.

The ethical arena of “paternity tests” is secondary and subservient, because it is simply one current-day mechanism in support of “personal knowledge”.

These different topics are dealt with separately below.

Although I propose in another paper that we should move “towards a society without paternity surprises”, something doesn’t become ethical simply because it is a step on the way towards a better society. Questions must still be answered on their own merits. I have attempted to avoid being influenced by the proposals in that other paper.

The ethics of personal knowledge of biological relationships

This primary topic is about rights of personal knowledge, and limits of personal knowledge, irrespective of how this is gained. The objective here is to step away from issues about whether it is OK to collect a few hairs from a hairbrush as DNA samples, and instead to ask fundamental questions such as:

“Has this person the right in principle to know X?”

and

“Has that person the right in principle to prevent this person from knowing X?”

People will have different views about this. But the trend in civilised nations is that “knowledge of oneself” takes precedence over “censorship of knowledge of oneself”.

Has a person the right in principle to know if he or she is the biological parent of a particular child?

Yes. There are at least 3 reasons for this:

1. This has been a fundamental desire of people for millennia. It is presumably a result of the evolution of Homo sapiens via natural selection. It has driven many facets of societies and sexual practices over that time. It is an aspect of human nature itself.
2. In an era of knowledge of inheritance of evolved characteristics and of genetic disorders, knowledge of biological relationships provides a key to important linkages between oneself and others.
3. In the UK, biological relationships define child support responsibilities. A child support responsibility for a child may involve (say) £50,000 over the years. A person must be able to find out whether he or she potentially has such a liability in future.
Has a person the right in principle to know if he or she is the biological child of a particular adult?

Yes. There are at least 3 reasons for this:

1. This has been a fundamental desire of people for millennia. It is presumably a result of the evolution of Homo sapiens via natural selection. It has driven many facets of societies and sexual practices over that time. It is an aspect of human nature itself.
2. In an era of knowledge of inheritance of evolved characteristics and of genetic disorders, knowledge of biological relationships provides a key to important linkages between oneself and others.
3. In the UK, biological relationships define child support responsibilities. In some circumstances a child can make a claim for child support from the biological parents. A child must be able to find out whether he or she potentially has this option in future.
Has a person the right in principle to know who his or her biological parents are?

A qualified yes. The qualification is that it would be legally and ethically dangerous to make a retrospective change to laws, such as those for adoption and gamete donation, which identified someone who was entitled to assume because of the law at the time that this would not happen. This principle of law should probably override the interests of the child.

There has been news of “...a recent high court case in which a judge overrode a mother’s objections and ordered DNA tests on a seven-year-old boy who wrongly thought his mother’s infertile husband was his father. The most important right, said the judge, was the boy’s right to know his “true roots and identity””.

So in principle a child should be able to find out from his or her mother whether or not the apparent father is the biological father. Furthermore, if he isn’t, the child should be able to discover the identity of the biological father. He is in the position of a sperm donor who has not been guaranteed anonymity in law! When will a child take his or her mother to court to make her divulge with whom she committed adultery? (Is "Mikulic v. Croatia", European Court of Human Rights, 17th January 2002, a precedent for using Article 8 of HRA 1998?)

(Inside Information, 10.35: “… The child is denied any access to knowledge of the identity of their genetic parents. However, it is expected that this situation may be challenged under the Human Rights Act 1998, given the growing trend in international law to recognise the right of the child to knowledge of their biological origins.”)

(Inside Information, 10.36: “It is also possible that not telling the child at an early age will mean that they may obtain this information from other people or following genetic testing. It has been suggested that if a child discovers information about their origin in later years they may be resentful and less trusting of their (social) parents.”)

If a person knows about his or her biological relationship to a particular child or a particular adult, has any other person the right in principle to know that person has that knowledge?

No. There are few cases indeed where one person has a right to know that another person knows something. There are few cases where this can even satisfactorily be determined. This is not one of them.

(A related question, for which I have no confident answer, is: "does a child have the right to know whether the mother knows who the child's biological father is?")

Has the person the right to seek to gain the knowledge identified above, without informing the other parties of the search?

A qualified yes. The qualification is that general laws on assault, theft, privacy, harassment, data protection, or similar laws must be adhered to.

But, other than that qualification, a person has a right (for example) to seek the information of who the mother was with at a particular date in history. For example, he or she could validly ask others who may know the answer, or make deductions from car mileage or receipts available in the house, etc.

A man has a right to take a fertility test that might confirm that he cannot possibly be the father of the child, for example that he is azoospermic. In future, when there is a new generation of high quality male contraceptives, some of which will be completely unobtrusive, there will be further valid ways of making the deduction. There are many valid ways of clarifying paternity, of which paternity tests are just one example. Use of DNA for the purpose is simply one "tactical mechanism".

In fact, the above reveals an interesting danger. While it may well be the case that about 9 in 10 children have the expected paternity, only paternity tests are likely to confirm these cases. Other methods tend to be focused on revealing the 1 in 10 cases of surprising paternity!

Has a person the right to prevent someone gaining the knowledge identified above?

A qualified no. It should only be possible in narrowly defined cases where this is in the interests of the person seeking to gain the knowledge. This would need some sort of pre-assigned authority, such as an ethics committee or a court. It is very unlikely that they apply in the case of competent adults seeking knowledge of their genetic relationships.

Has a person the responsibility in principle to know if he or she is the biological parent of a particular child?

No. There is no responsibility to know something. But it may happen as a by-product of another person’s rights.

Has a person the responsibility in principle to know if he or she is the biological child of a particular adult?

No. There is no responsibility to know something. But it may happen as a by-product of another person’s rights.

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Page last updated: 2 July, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2002