From the clinics to the courts, routine DNA tests uncover genetic identities—and even family secrets. British public-health researchers examined nearly 50 years of medical data from around the world and came to a startling conclusion: One in 25 men unwittingly raises another man's child.
The researchers found evidence of mismatched paternity in each of 14 countries studied—from the United States to South Africa. Few socioeconomic groups seem immune, but the probability of parental discrepancy seems higher among unmarried couples, the poor, and women under 35 (who are more likely to have more than one sexual partner).
High rates of wrongful paternity raise public-health concerns, says Mark Bellis of Liverpool John Moores University in England. Such unwelcome news could threaten mental health, trigger domestic violence toward mother and child, or break up a family. While mistaken paternity may be as old as fatherhood, it has never been easier to find out the truth. Each year, hundreds of thousands of DNA tests are performed worldwide to screen for genetic diseases, test for organ donation, and identify disaster and crime victims. Mail-order paternity tests are just a mouse click away.
With increased testing, Bellis fears medical and judicial systems do not have a plan to deal with the emotional fallout. "Very little thought and research has gone into what sort of counseling should be available," says Bellis. "The information can be shattering for the family."
"Who's Your Daddy?" "Measuring Paternal Discrepancy and Its Public Health Consequences." Mark A. Bellis et al. in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Vol. 59, No. 9, pages 749–754; September 2005.