June 11 2000
Quick, discreet DNA tests to establish paternity have become a boom industry. A swab inside the cheek can resolve doubts that have lingered for years. All too often, however, the results bring heartbreaking news. Lois Rogers reports
Who's your Daddy?Lois Rogers
The news that his little blond son Rauli had cystic fibrosis came as a devastating blow to Morgan Wise, a Texan railway engineer. He was eager to help when doctors asked him to undergo a genetic test to determine the origins of the boy's illness.
Wise's results, however, came back negative. Both parents must have the gene for a child to contract the disease, and tests showed Wise was not a carrier of cystic fibrosis. To his astonishment, Wise was told this meant it was highly unlikely he was Rauli's biological father.
Already separated from the mother of his four children, Wise, tempted by the paternity testing clinic offer of a cut-price DNA test deal, underwent genetic analysis to establish whether he was the father of Rawli and his other three children. It was a decision that would change his life.
The results revealed that only his daughter, the eldest child conceived during his 13-year marriage, was fathered by him. The three boys were not his sons.
"I can't begin to describe how I felt," said Wise, 38. "It was like experiencing a sudden death. I could not believe she had deceived me so completely, and for so long. I just fell apart.
"How a mother can do this to her marriage, her husband, her children, and live a lie, I don't understand."
Wise, who says he still regards himself as the boys' father, is now locked in a destructive legal battle with his former wife. He is arguing he will help support the children, but not through her. Three weeks ago, Texan courts ruled he should have no access to the children until the maintenance dispute is settled.
The boys he believed to be his sons are among thousands of innocent victims of the growth in the DNA testing industry. In both Britain and America, suspicious men can now take advantage of laboratories offering quick and easy proof of paternity.
Genetic relationships can be established using a home testing kit available over the internet. All it requires is a swab sample of cells from the inside of the cheek of both father and child, which can then be posted off to a laboratory. The results are delivered within five days, no questions asked.
More than 250,000 tests a year are now conducted in America, and about 15,000 in Britain. Some of the testing is done to settle legal disputes about child maintenance between unmarried couples, or to answer questions on rights to inheritance.
Many of the customers, however, are married men who are suspicious. All too often, the results bring shocking and unwelcome news: roughly 30% of men taking the tests discover that they are not the fathers of the children they regarded as their own. In the wider community, social scientists say up to 1 in 20 children are not the offspring of the man who believes himself to be their father.
Caroline Caskey's Houston-based company Identigene, which offers DNA test kits, processes 250 cases a week, and averages one a month from British clients who have contacted the firm over the internet. "These secrets don't keep," said Caskey.
Allan Gelb, who describes himself as an immuno-haematologist, though not a doctor, runs a bustling genetic testing service from his office in New York City. "I am doing a great deal of business with the UK," he said. "I should think we have had 40 to 50 people in the past two years."
DNA tests have made Gelb into something of a television celebrity. Bearded and bespectacled, he makes regular television appearances on talk shows giving people their test results. The more devastating the news, the better the ratings. One show recently featured a married couple who were told by Gelb, live on air, that their tests revealed they were brother and sister.
Family split: Wise found he was not the father of his 'sons'
IN BRITAIN, on-air DNA test results may not yet be the stuff of Kilroy, but scientists have been swift to capitalise on the paternity-testing business. There are seven government-approved laboratories offering the service. About 70% of the business currently comes through the courts from the Child Support Agency (CSA) trying to track errant fathers to pay maintenance for their children.
However, private demand is growing as more people become aware of the service. People who have lived their lives with a nagging doubt, agonising over their parentage or their progeny, are opting to take the plunge.
Customers receive full counselling - they are asked how they will react if the result is not what they had hoped for, and warned they cannot "unknow" it.
John Burn, professor of clinical genetics at Newcastle University, set up North Gene to provide private paternity testing at £450 per family. Profits are ploughed back into the university. "There are plenty of cases where testing is appropriate," he said. "For example, the mother has gone off with her lover and the natural father of the child wants it tested to prove he, and not the maternal grandmother, should have custody.
"It is very hard to say that a young man must pay maintenance for 18 years when he knows he is not the father of a child, but at the same time it makes people very uneasy to think that an estranged father could turn up, take the child out and secretly get it tested to see if he could get out of responsibility for it."
Burn believes increasing interest in the service is a result of the decline of the traditional family, and the fragmentation of relationships.
The case of Brian Ellis is one such example. When his wife, Tina, told him that she had conceived, after the couple had been trying for a baby for two years, he was delighted. His joy, however, was shortlived.
Midway through the pregnancy, Tina told him the child she was carrying was not his, but his best friend's. Ellis's reaction was, and continues to be, one of disbelief. Although Tina left him to live with her new lover, Ellis demanded a DNA test - though he has so far not offered to pay for it.
"There is no way he is the father anyway," she said. "We had been sleeping together without contraception from when I was 17 to when I was 21 and I only got pregnant when I started the other relationship."
The scientific truth is that, since she was sexually active with both, either man could be the father. Ellis, who has since fathered two children with his second wife, is still convinced the baby born to Tina during their marriage is his child. Concrete proof of paternity would be the only way to end the long-running dispute.
Burn said: "It is a difficult field, but it is not difficult to see why it needs to be done. People will argue we should never have discovered so much about genetics, but we cannot go back now, and this technology will right wrongs that have gone on for a very long time."
The proof often carries heartbreak, however. For 40 years, Bryan Good carried a tattered picture of a baby girl in his pocket, a portrait of the daughter his then girlfriend had given up for adoption when Good was 18. He always longed to be reunited with his daughter, and the much-awaited phone call finally came. The little girl in the photograph, now a grown woman called Diane, was also longing to meet him.
The pair had an ecstatic reunion, both believing the father-daughter relationship they had sought for decades had now been found. Social workers, however, suggested that they take a DNA test, because it was not Good's name, but that of another man, that appeared as the father on Diane's original birth certificate.
The test proved they were not related. Diane, distraught, decided not to continue to see Good. "The mother had told me I was the father before we parted," said the bewildered Good. "Losing her was just like a bereavement."
He is one of many men stunned to discover that a woman they were sure was faithful was not. DNA tests are offering further evidence of an age-old fact - that female sexual behaviour is heavily influenced by the fertility cycle. Studies have shown that women are drawn by primitive urges to seek the optimum genes for their children - and are therefore more likely to be unfaithful at the time they are most likely to get pregnant.
Robin Baker, a former Manchester University biologist who pioneered work on sperm competition, found women were more likely to have sex with their lovers than their regular companions during their fertile periods. They also retained more semen from their lovers.
Recent research examining the behaviour of young women in discos also revealed that those who were ovulating were the most provocatively dressed. They were subconsciously responding to their hormones.
A Channel 4 documentary to be shown on Tuesday, Who's Your Father, will explore the case of Tara, who came to Burn's testing centre seeking DNA proof that her son Patrick was the offspring of her dead boyfriend and should therefore be entitled to inherit from his estate.
Her conviction about Patrick's paternity was evident. So was her devastation when DNA samples showed he was the son of another man. The shell-shocked Tara finally admitted he must be the product of a one-night stand with a friend during a rocky period in her relationship.
THE ethical complications of the widespread use of DNA testing are already beginning to emerge. Are the matches shown by the samples always to be taken as gospel? Denis Holmes, 40, a financial adviser from Manchester, is adamant that the scientific "advances" offered by DNA testing are a force of destruction rather than enlightenment.
After 20 years of marriage, Holmes began a relationship with a dancer after he found his wife had been unfaithful. After several months, his mistress said she was pregnant.
Holmes was astonished. He had had a vasectomy some years earlier. DNA tests, however, showed there was a 99.99% chance that the child, now 22 months old, was his.
Holmes has now embarked on costly litigation to prove the test is wrong. Since the DNA laboratory has said one in 67,000 people carry the same gene pattern, that means 700 other Britons, or 350 other men, could also have fathered the baby.
Holmes has passed repeated tests to prove his vasectomy has not failed. Eight sperm tests have proved negative. The dispute is to be the subject of a high court hearing next month, with the CSA demanding that Holmes pay child maintenance. In the meantime, the CSA has demanded £10,000 from him for legal costs, and Holmes has spent £4,000 on medical investigations to prove his infertility.
"It is a horrible, horrible situation. I don't wish to see the child and, based on the evidence, I don't believe it to be mine," he said. "It is not an issue of avoiding responsibility. We have clear conflicting evidence that suggests the DNA test is wrong."
Holmes is now planning to undergo a further four sperm tests before next month's hearing. The complexities thrown up by cases like his - which English courts are still not equipped to deal with - have prompted the creation of draft guidelines for a paternity testing industry code of practice, now in their final stages with advisers at the Human Genetics Commission.
The guidelines, laying down quality and accuracy standards, plus plans for a new inspectorate to ensure facilities are up to scratch, are expected to be circulated to the clinics within the next few months. The rules will also cover the issues of who can ask for tests, to whom the results may be given, and how information can be stored.
At present, fathers can suffer almost as much cruelty at the hands of the law as from the women who seek to trick them. They cannot demand DNA testing without a woman's consent. If a test proves positive, they have obligations to pay maintenance, but no rights whatsoever to see the child or have any input into its upbringing.
Neither laws nor codes of practice, however, will end the emotional traumas resulting from paternity testing. Although Burn argues that the light shone by DNA onto the genetic secrets of an individual will do more good than harm, he admits to unease.
All too frequently, the answer to the paternity question is one both father and child wish had never been asked: "Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't put it back."
Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.