The Independent

A scientific advance that makes us behave worse

Science can now nail women who do the unforgiveable and lie about the paternity of their children

Deborah Orr
The Independent
21 June 2002

Whatever else one might think about the extraordinary events surrounding the birth of Damian Charles Hurley, his parents have at least got one thing right. They have abided scrupulously by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that "a child, where possible, has a right to know his or her parents".

No doubt those who drafted the convention did not have in mind that parenthood should be established quite so publicly, or quite so acrimoniously. But the fact is that even had Mr Stephen Bing greeted the news of his girlfriend's pregnancy with pleasure, excitement and the devout wish that all should live happily together ever after, the infant Damian would still be one of the last people in Britain to know exactly who his mum and dad were.

As it is, little Damian is going to have to piece together the details of his contested paternity as part of the process of growing up. Mr Bing may claim that he will now be an attentive and responsible father. But he has already, by declaring so openly his profound mistrust of the boy's mother and his robust unwillingness to accept fatherhood, strewn hurtful psychological hurdles in his son's path.

If his parents don't tell him the facts as gently as they can, there will be plenty of others more than eager to fill Damian in on the background to his conception and birth. What a perfect state of civilisation will be attained on the day when people in the public eye who are intent on invading the privacy of their children – born or unborn – are given short shrift by the media.

In the meantime though, our desire to see dirty laundry washed in public seems limitless. Even Helena Kennedy QC, hardly known as a gossip-monger or muck-raker, has weighed in with an article entitled "Why Bing's genes concern us all". As chairwoman of the Human Genetics Commission, Ms Kennedy was obliged to come to Mr Bing's defence. Her concern was not his behaviour over Ms Hurley's pregnancy, but over another paternity case which has been claiming the rapt attention of the epicene film producer as well as journalists everywhere.

This one sees Mr Bing typecast as the paternity-denying villain, but in a drama with a rather different general thrust. It might be said in small mitigation of the insalubrious Mr Bing that he at least knows first hand that women really do pass other men's children off as their partner's offspring. After all, he must have had strong suspicions, as least, that the daughter of his lover was his child and not her husband's. For why else would he have refused to co-operate when he was asked to consent to a DNA test?

Mr Kirk Kerkorian, the outraged cuckold in the scenario, was not daunted by Mr Bing's refusal. He has, by getting a private detective to steal dental floss from Mr Bing's refuse, established that the child claimed as his daughter is actually Mr Bing's. He, in turn, has sued him for invasion of privacy.

In this case the mother – who goes under the misnomer of Lisa Bonder – had insisted that Mr Kerkorian was the father of her daughter. After their marriage broke up, she claimed a comfortable £223,000 a month in maintenance, prompting the octogenarian billionaire to start playing dirty.

Again, in all these shabby adult machinations, it is the child who suffers most. What will four-year-old Kira Kerkorian one day make of the behaviour of her mother, her biological father, and the man whose name is on her birth certificate? It's some comfort that she now has a half-sibling with whom she can discuss the ramifications of their father's penchant for impregnating and running. Still, at least now Kira too has gained her rights under the UN convention. She will know who her father is, even though her mother did not want her to.

But perhaps counterintuitively, in the light of modern ideas about the importance to people of access to their genetic history, Ms Kennedy and the commission are minded that it should be illegal for children in Britain to establish their paternity through tactics similar to those that Mr Kerkorian resorted to.

It is likely that the taking of DNA without permission – which is as simple as removing a hair from a comb – will become a criminal offence in Britain, a move that is necessary to stop all sorts of potential abuses – from employers or journalists for example – as well as from the obvious potential miscreants, disgruntled putative fathers.

And there seems to be a lot of them. Last year in Britain 8,900 DNA tests were known to have been carried out to establish or refute paternity, 5,000 of them under the auspices of the Child Support Agency. These are not the tests which worry the Human Genetics Commission. There is a voluntary code in Britain which clinics abide by and which states that permission of both parents – or presumably suspected parents – much be sought before paternity tests are carried out.

Suspicions about paternity have led to steady and increasing demand for testing services available abroad, via the internet. A number of dubious fathers are taking advantage of these so-called motherless tests. It is horrible to think that the people children think of as their fathers may be robbing them of fragments of bodily matter in order to check if their child is really theirs. This seems to me like one of the many cases in which scientific advancement makes us behave more badly instead of less badly. In the days before blood testing, let alone DNA testing, which were not so long ago, it was the convention for men simply to accept paternity if it was at all practically possible that a man could have fertilised a woman.

It is paradoxical that these days, the Mr Bings of this world feel comfortable with refusing to do so, even though science can at last conclusively nail them. And science can now nail women who do the unforgivable, and lie about the paternity of their children too. Oddly though, we do not see this as progressive, a development which might force both genders to behave more respectfully and trustingly towards each other.

Instead, it almost seems that we'd like to turn the clock back, to the days when no questions were asked (except when it comes to finance, of course).

Baroness Kennedy, for example, suggests that the father's right to know if a child is biologically his is of such minor importance that it should not be pursued.

"DNA testing is very simple," she says, "but there can be serious repercussions. It is not only terribly difficult for the child and the mother, but also for the other siblings, who suddenly find that all the things they understood about their family become different".

Which is surely tantamount to saying that women should be allowed to lie to father and child about their genetic heritage, as they have done for centuries, and never expect science to be invoked in challenge.

Instead, it seems to me, that the availability of reliable DNA testing could have a positive effect on our behaviour towards each other. Men and women should both now realise that it is more imperative than ever that they are honest with each other, because in the last resort the truth can be established.

As for DNA testing - of course secret tests should be illegal. And of course a relationship in which suspicions about paternity thrive is not a healthy one. But the refusal of either a father to take a test, or a mother to allow one, should always be looked upon as highly suspicious in itself.

2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd