men in elite discussion of paternity testing

Elite discussion of paternity testing shows contempt for men.  On the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National Law Report, a professor worried that paternity testing might constrain women’s sexuality:

I wonder whether the DNA testing is a bit like the modern-day chastity belt, it’s another way for men to control women’s sexuality and guarantee biological paternity in a way that they might once have done through the chastity belt.  And so the support for DNA testing might be seen as kind of a modern-day equivalent to support for the chastity belt in medieval times. [1]

The authors of a peer-reviewed scholarly article concerning false paternity beliefs (which they call “paternal discrepancy”) suggested possible benefits of paternity testing:

The availability of paternity testing kits themselves may also be used to convince some men that carefree sex and denial of paternity is no longer a viable option. [2]

Put those two views together and you get today’s simple picture.  Repressing women’s sexuality is bad and reactionary.  Repressing men’s sexuality is good and progressive. Paternity testing should be allowed only if it doesn’t repress women’s sexuality and does repress men’s sexuality.

Scholarly discussion of biological paternity remarkably devalues truth.  According to the best available evidence, about 5% of children in high-income democracies live under false biological paternity beliefs.  Authors of one of the few studies of the extent of false paternity beliefs advocated more research on the implications of correcting false paternity beliefs, because decisions about what to do with true information “must be informed by what best protects the health of those affected.”[3] The logic of such a position, if supported and applied more generally, could transform the whole scholarly enterprise.  Astrophysical research could affect popular, deeply held astrological and religious beliefs and the mental health of many persons.  Should more research on such effects be undertaken before astrophysicists are allowed to reveal scientific truths?

Paternity is imposed on men with little regard for biological truth.  In the U.S., legal processes of paternity establishment support false biological paternity beliefs through undue influence, misrepresentation, and mis-service.  Yet that issue is scarcely a matter of concern in legal scholarship.  For example, in a law review article in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, a scholar emphasized “the best interests of children” and the importance of re-enforcing the current structure of family law.  More specifically, the scholar argued that the state should impose specific monthly monetary transfers to the mother of a child from a man who, as a result of the mother’s fraud, falsely believed that the child was his biological child.[4]  Perhaps in some cases that might be appropriate.  But the big picture of paternity establishment is social pressures creating a conspiracy of silence or, even worse, inducing deliberate falsity.

Criminal laws have been enacted to prevent men from acquiring the truth about their biological paternity.  In 2002, the Chair of the Human Genetic Commission in the U.K. stated:  

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

We already know that in the United States fathers, on access visits, are taking their children’s DNA without consent for testing, and we need to prevent that happening here. [5]

The claim that “fathers, on access visits, are taking their children’s DNA without consent for testing” is revealing.  A man with parental responsibility for a child normally has authority to make decisions on behalf of that child.  Non-consent here implicitly means without the consent of the mother.  The U.K. Human Tissues Act of 2004 made “non-consensual” paternity testing a criminal offense entailing possible punishment of up to three years of imprisonment.[6]  The Chief Judge of the Family Court in Australia similarly proposed to criminalize fathers seeking true paternity knowledge.[7]  With the growing importance of genetics to medicine, such criminal laws will need to expand continually to encompass new medical information and circumstances. Whether criminal law and elite moralizing can succeed in keeping men in ignorance about their biological paternity remains to be seen.

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[1] Michael Gilding, Sociologist, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia, on Law Report, “Paternity and Child Support,” broadcast 24 April 2001.  While good statistics are not available, almost all medieval peasant women probably never wore a chastity belt. The share of medieval women who wore chastity belts is probably much smaller than the current share of unmarried Australian men who have had legal fatherhood forcibly imposed on them.  The abstract of Gilding (2005) declares:

There is a common view that misattributed paternity is widespread in Western societies, between ten and 30 per cent of all births. Such estimates are an urban myth. The actual evidence suggests that the true extent of misattributed paternity is closer to one per cent, and not more than three per cent.

Gilding’s estimate isn’t well-documented.  Nonetheless, given the great importance of biological paternity, even 1% of children living under false biological paternity belief seems quite significant.  Moreover, according to the best available evidence, about 5% of children in high-income democracies have false beliefs about who their biological father is.

[2] Bellis et al. (2005) p. 753.  This quote implicitly refers to imposing large financial obligations on men for doing nothing more than having consensual sex of reproductive type.

[3] Id.

[4] See Jacobs (2004).  Id. emphasizes “functional parenting.”  State-determined financial obligations (“child support”) have nothing to do with father-child emotional attachment and undermine non-monetary functional understandings of fatherhood.  In the Matter of Shondel J. v. Mark D. (2006) is a leading case for the state imposition of financial obligations on men in circumstances of fraud, no biological paternity, and limited social relation.

[5] Lady Kennedy (Helena Kennedy, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws), Chair of the Human Genetics Commission, quoted in Bentham & Fraser (2002). For relevant analysis, see Pearson (2002).

[6] See Human Tissues Act of 2004, Part 3, Ch. 45.

[7] Schwartz (2002).


Bellis, Mark A., Karen Hughes, Sara Hughes and John R. Ashton. 2005. “Measuring paternal discrepancy and its public health consequences.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health  59: 749-754.

Bentham, Martin, and Lorraine Fraser, “Move to outlaw secret DNA testing by fathers.” The Telegraph (UK), 19 May 2002.

Gilding, Michael. 2005. “Rampant Misattributed Paternity: The Creation of an Urban Myth.” People and Place 13(2)  pp. 1-11 (associated press release).

Pearson, Barry. 2002.”‘The truth is out there’: Commentary on ‘Move to outlaw secret DNA testing by fathers’.” Child Support Analysis.

Jacobs, Melanie B. (2004). “When Daddy Doesn’t Want to be Daddy Anymore: An Argument Against Paternity Fraud Claims.” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 16: 193-240.

Schwartz, Larry. 2002. “Paternity: stop DNA by ‘stealth’.” The Age (Australia), May 26, 2002.

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