Should paternity tests be sold over the counter at Boots?

10 February 2011

Rob Williams writes:

We were busy last week fielding media calls following the announcement from Boots that they would be offereing paternity tests over the counter. Is this a good idea or a dangerous one?  It took me a while to decide what we should say.  The first question it raised in my mind was whether there was any possibility that this technology could be abused.  Was there a way in which the tests could increase the conflict between men and women over their children?  And what about stable families – how would they cope with the devastating news that the father of the child is not the husband of the mother?  Fears loomed of potential disaster for family life.

Helpfully, the facts cleared up many of my questions.  The test itself requires DNA from mother, child and father (or possible father).  The test also requires consent forms to be completed by mother, father and, if over the age of consent, the child.  So the paperwork required, and the business of collecting the DNA (with swabs)  rules out any possibility that this test would be an impulse purchase which a man could, on his own, rush out and buy in a fit of rage after an argument at home.  And then there is the cost – the headline in the news stated that the test would cost just £30.  But it turns out that this is the cost of the kit you need to collect the DNA samples.  If you go back to Boots and hand the kit in for testing, they will ask for another £130 on top.  Suddenly it’s looking rather expensive.

Some might argue that families can cope with all kinds of ambiguities and that the preservation of the surface calm within a family is more important than nit picking about exactly who is the father.  I believe that this is misguided.  Knowing your father is very important.  It is a relationship central to a person’s sense of who they are.  It is also a relationship that plays a strong role during childhood and if successful can help a child do well at school, stay out of trouble with drugs or police, and move confidently into adulthood.  Of course there are lots of children who are brought up men men who are not their biological father, and draw tremendous benefits from that relationship.  But if there is any doubt about who their father really is, we owe it to the child to clear this up, whether or not the biological father goes on to get involved in their lives.

Then I found out, with the help of google, that this test was already available in the UK.  You can get a similar kit over the internet and do the whole thing by mail order.  The Boots test will be about half the price of the current internet offer.  But the principle was clear.  Boots are not about to open Pandora’s box.  It has been open for several years already.  And I have not noticed a explosion of family disasater as a result. We do know that family life is far from perfect in the UK.  But I don’t think anyone has claimed that this is down to the paternity test.

So we should welcome the test, understand the importance of knowing your father, and conclude that, in the end, the truth is more useful to a child than either ambiguity or a lie.  At least in this country. Towards the end of the week a French tv station asked for an interview.  Paternity tests are not legally available in France and they wanted to interview a family who had difficulties as a result of using the test in the UK. I said I would look for a family they could talk to but I have to admit I have not found one.

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