Ethics of Selling Paternity Test Kits

Who is (or was) your father? Are you sure? How would you react to finding out that your biological father was actually a different individual than the one you’d always been told was your biological father?

Regular readers will know that I’ve blogged before about genetic tests sold direct-to-consumers. Most of the hullabaloo over genetic testing recently has focused on tests for particular diseases (like Myriad’s BRACAnalysis or on broad, “gene association” tests (like Navigenics’ Health Compass). But at least some attention has also been focused on good ol’ fashioned paternity testing. Paternity testing has been around for years (using blood-type, analysis of HLA antigens, etc.) but modern genetic testing has made it more accurate and reliable.

And now, gene-based paternity testing is available to consumers directly, without clinicians and without prescriptions. See these two items:

The press-release above blithely asserts that “the Identigene DNA Paternity Test Kit has provided peace-of-mind to tens of thousands of people across the country.” Probably true. Indeed, the Identigene press release gives details of the story of one happy father —”Clayton Hall” — who confirmed that his little girl, Chloe, was in fact his biological daughter. To its credit, the press release makes clear that such engaging in such testing is not a small matter:

Hall’s experience is poignant. He held the envelope containing a sample of his DNA and one from Chloe–the child he is raising as his daughter–over the open slot of a U.S. Mail drop box for more than five minutes, deciding. If he let go of the envelope, in a few days he may learn something upsetting about that relationship.

Hall’s story has a happy ending. But the Identigene press release omits the obvious: at least some customers’ stories won’t end so happily. In at least some cases, the truth will rip families apart. It seems to me that the risks of paternity testing are considerably more serious than the risks of most other kinds of genetic testing.

Here’s a news item about ethical issues arising from findings of non-paternity: Paternity Testing: Truth Can Hurt.

The implications are huge, the study authors noted, because such revelations often lead to divorce and increased mental health problems for both the man and woman involved, including the threat of violence by the man.

In addition, children whose lives are changed by this genetic information can struggle with low self-esteem, anxiety, and increased antisocial behavior, such as aggression.

Not exactly a harmless product. Of course, the risks of paternity tests — risks to the person buying the test, and risks to their entire family — the are pretty obvious, which is something that can’t be said for other kinds of genetic tests. But still, the marketing of these tests ought to take into consideration that this is a product that can have enormous impact on people’s lives, for better or for worse.

Academic work on this topic:
My friend Bryn Williams-Jones has been writing about the ethics of genetic testing since before it was the hip topic it is today. Here’s an older paper of his that talks about paternity testing, among other kinds of genetic testing: “Re-Framing the Discussion: Commercial Genetic Testing in Canada.”

I’ve just ordered this book on the topic: Genetic Ties and the Family: The Impact of Paternity Testing on Parents and Children.

2 comments so far

  1. hartwomen on

    aah, business ethics blog is now “ripped from the headlines,” (tv headlines, at least!). This past week’s CSI: Miami was all about this issue and, unfortunately, it was not the storybook ending of Mr. Hall’s, above. See:;ep_title;7

  2. Suresh Kumar G on

    I agree with you fully. There are certain limits to which you can go. When there is a reasonable conflict in terms of paternity, such tests can be allowed, but selling such test kits over the counter is quite risky to the individuals and their families. Is it not better to have a central agency to administer such tests, when they are deemed necessary by a court of law?

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