Who’s Your Daddy?

My mother once announced, for reasons I cannot retrieve at this late stage in life, that I should “never forget that you always know who your mother is, but your father is a suspect at best!” Because I look just like my father, I knew she was kidding, but recent events in the field of DNA testing show my mother was apparently ahead of her time. “Who’s your daddy?” is fast becoming a major legal and ethical issue. Before DNA testing, no one could tell for sure who someone’s father was; a child with red hair in a black-haired family might get teased unmercifully but still accepted as a member of the family. Today, more people are finding out exactly who their daddies are because tests that are being used to find answers to medical questions are also providing information about parentage.

CSI fans know DNA testing has become a popular tool of law enforcement, but the area of the law that has been most affected by DNA testing is the legal process that determines who pays child support. For hundreds of years, the courts relied on the testimony of witnesses to decide this question. Now, however, a simple lab test provides the answer. If the DNA of the child matches the DNA of the “suspect” male, the case is over. Daddy has been found. If the DNA does not match the “suspect,” the man is, in scientific terms, “excluded.” If the mother and the “suspect” are not married, the “excluded” man does not have to pay child support. Not so, however, if the child is conceived during wedlock. A man who thought he was the father of his ten-year-old son got suspicious. He submitted a swab of his son’s DNA to a lab and found out that he was not the boy’s father. Too bad, the court said: you’re still on the hook.

DNA testing is likewise being used to check on the health of pregnant mothers and the children they carry. Along with information about whether an unborn child has Down’s syndrome, the lab technicians can now tell whether the child’s DNA matches that of the mother’s husband. When it doesn’t match, the husband is not even—as my mother told me years ago—a “suspect”: he’s definitely not the father of the child. This “exclusion” is called an “oops,” and the medical/scientific community is grappling with what to do with this information. Is there an obligation to tell the mother and her husband? Should only the mother be told? The answer has the potential to wreck marriages and ruin lives. Anyone who doubts this should go see Othello, especially since statistics are telling us that five to fifteen percent of the husbands walking out of hospitals with what they think are their newborn child are not the actual fathers!

Problems are also popping up in genealogy searches. The search results, as the Reverend Al Sharpton found out recently, can be astonishing. Some doctors are recommending we get our genes mapped to find out what diseases await us. That may be a good idea, but in the process, we may learn more about ourselves, and who fathered us, than we want to know. Do the math. A five to fifteen percent slippage each generation means we are related to a lot of people we never thought were in our family tree. Maybe Shakespeare was on to something.

The author is a local attorney specializing in Intellectual Property law and can be reached at LawEur@aol.com.


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