Paternity testing: how to progress

10 November 2014

If statements on paternity testing websites are to be believed, the decision to have a paternity test is a straightforward process for the curious father. Send away for a free, no-obligation kit, post it back with your samples and your results will be available (by phone, mail or online) within 5 days - all for around £119. Yet for most men, the decision to take a paternity test will be much more difficult. A father may have endured years of doubt about his child's paternity before deciding to find out for sure. And once the decision to take the test has been made, many fathers may be unprepared for the emotional, legal and financial fallout from the results. The wide availability, technical simplicity and non-invasiveness of modern testing may also blind families to the devastation that non-paternity may bring. Although paternity testing in Britain is regulated by a voluntary code of practice that does account for ethical issues, the recent study published by a team at the Liverpool John Moores University further highlights the need for more research into how a finding of 'parental discrepancy' impacts not only fathers and children but the broader family. At present, findings of non-paternity are assumed to have a devastating impact, one that could destroy families, but the empirical validity of these assumptions remains unknown. We also need a broader debate on the value of this knowledge. While some believe that 'ignorance is bliss', others argue that our lives are better if we obtain all accessible knowledge about ourselves. This age-old debate about the value of knowledge is unlikely to be solved any time soon, but those commissioning paternity tests should be encouraged to think about their own attitudes towards the meaning of paternity. For many fathers, knowledge of biological kinship is fundamental to the parent-child relationship: some groups have even called for compulsory paternity testing at birth, arguing that this is the simplest and least-heartbreaking solution.