Over-the-counter paternity tests raise concern


by Jolene Cargill

A leading UK fathers’ charity has branded the sale of over-the-counter DIY paternity tests at Britain’s biggest high street chemist as irresponsible.

The new £30 pack, available from Boots stores across the UK this week, checks a man’s DNA against a child’s to find out if he is the biological father.  DIY tests are available online and in smaller pharmacies but this is the first time that a high street chain has stocked them on its shelves.

The kits are used by mothers who want to confirm the identity of their child’s father, men who want to know if a child is theirs and adults trying to trace their biological fathers.

In the US the demand for over-the-counter tests has rocketed.  About half of tests bought in smaller pharmacies in the UK and online prove that the man is not the father. This is much higher than previous estimates of one in twenty five men who are raising a child fathered by another man.

The new kit, called ‘Assure DNA’, comes with swabs to collect cells from inside the cheek.  Swabs are placed inside sterilised envelopes and sent for processing at a laboratory in Norwich.

UK charity Families Need Fathers (FNF) said selling the tests over the counter is irresponsible and doesn’t take into account how the results might affect individuals, family relationships and public health.

Becky Jarvis, Director of Policy at FNF said, “Do-it-yourself paternity testing has the potential to cause more harm than good.  Paternity issues are highly emotive and they need to be managed very carefully with the right level of professional support.  While we recognise the need to make testing simpler and quicker, we also appreciate the needs of children and both parents at what is usually a highly sensitive time.”

Manufacturers Anglia DNA says half the tests it carries out are for babies under one, and a quarter for infants younger than ten weeks.  It argues this is before a child is ‘aware’ of family relationships.  Dr Mandy Hartley, Anglia DNA’s technical manager, said the tests were ‘peace of mind’ for families trying to ‘move on with their lives’.  Around half of the tests are carried out when the child is under twelve months.

Twenty seven year old Claire, who asked us not to use her real name, said the discovery that her dad was not her biological father changed her life and family relationships irreversibly.  “When I found out my dad wasn’t my real father I didn’t fully understand what it meant.  I was very young and then as I grew up I started to feel different, like half a person.  Something was always missing.  My dad is the man who I trust and who has always been there for me.”

“I have often thought about tracing my father but didn’t want to upset my dad.  So I am constantly aware there is a big part of me I will never fully understand.  My parents are separated and Dad now has a biological daughter.  Deep down I always fear that we will drift apart because I am not really his.”

“My mum has told me she doesn’t want me to get in touch with my father because she thinks I would only get hurt.  It might be my right to know about my father but it has never been a positive experience.  Sometimes I think it would be better not to know the truth.”

“When I have children I want them to be able to feel close to their family and take pride in where they have come from, not have to hide away from it.  Parents should think hard about what they tell their child and how their decisions can stay with them for life.”

Boots said the tests meet the demand for access to a safe, accurate and UK based testing service.

Are DIY tests a good idea?

DIY paternity tests have become more available in the UK, following the international precedent.  Most existing DIY kits are sent to America for analysis outside the control of UK regulators.  The launch of this new test does give people access to a UK-based testing service by a regulated company; the Ministry of Justice confirmed that Anglia DNA is on their list of companies who are accredited to carry out court-directed paternity tests.

However, the sale of tests via pharmacies is not regulated and the quality of service is determined entirely by the test provider, according to the UK Human Genetics Commission, the Government’s advisory body on developments in human genetics.  The Commission has developed guidelines in response to growing concern about many aspects of DIY genetic testing.

Questions have to be answered about whether these tests are supported by scientific evidence and the risks of sensitive genetic information being gathered being used or passed on for other purposes.  Father, mother and child must consent to the new test and provide proof of identification such as a copy of a passport or driving licence.  If the child is under 16, the mother must consent on their behalf.  As with anonymous sperm donors, we must always think of consent as not just a legal issue; it’s a moral one.

The tests could bring relief for some families and might also stem the rise in the UK of women using paternity tests during pregnancy, which increases the risk of miscarriage by about one per cent.  But ethics experts have warned the tests could ‘tear families apart’ if there has been infidelity.

Surely the act of infidelity destroys trust, not a test or any other means which reveals the infidelity.  The point remains that while buying the tests is easier and more convenient, what to do with the information is never going to be black and white.  Companies selling these tests must be more responsible about getting the message across about support, guidance and counseling.