The Role of DNA Again–This Time Switched At Birth

Here’s a story from the BBC that’s kind of a classic “switched at birth” scenario.   It seems that two baby girls were born on the same day in a small town in Russia in 1998.   Through some sort of human error, the babies got the wrong identifying tags and went home with the wrong families.    The mistake has come to light now (12 years later).

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, but a couple of things make me want to revisit the subject briefly.  First, it fits nicely with the last post.   What’s the role of DNA here?  It’s evidence–irrefutable evidence that the children were in fact switched.   Without the DNA we might still guess (apparently the girls resemble the people they are genetically related to) but we wouldn’t know for certain.  With the DNA we know.  Thus, as was the case in Argentina, DNA testing allows us to establish some past facts with certainty.

But there’s also a limit to what DNA tells us.  It does not tell us what to do when we find that the 12 year old girls were switched at birth and it doesn’t tell us who their parents are.   (I know many of you disagree, but that’s my position.)   Consider this except from the BBC story:

If it was a surprise to the parents, it was an even greater shock for the two girls.

“It’s terrible for both of them,” Ms Belyaeva says. “They’ve grown up with one set of parents, now they’ve found out they have a different mother and

“Neither child wants to leave their home. Irina keeps saying to me: ‘Mum, please don’t give me away!’ I comfort her by saying: ‘I would never do anything
against your wishes. Nothing has changed. I’m still your mother.’

“As for Anya, my biological daughter, she also says she wants to remain with the parents she knows. She will just visit from time to time.”

For these families, the newly discovered knowledge does not erase the past.   They are not rushing to exchange children, so that each girl resides with her genetic parents.

This, it seems to me, highlights something quite important.   DNA testing can tell you a lot and is very powerful, but it doesn’t tell you who your family is.   I think it is quite fortunate that each of the girls gets to stay with her own family even as she now knows her genetic parents.

There are, however, a couple of outstanding questions.  First, this whole thing was set in motion when one of the fathers refused to pay child support, contending that the child was not his.  (By this he meant, of course, that the child was not genetically related to him.)   Testing was done and he turned out to be right–but not at all in the way he thought.  While he apparently contended his wife had been unfaithful to him, this was not the case.   So does he have to pay child support?   It’s true that the child isn’t genetically related to him, but still–shouldn’t he have to pay child support under these circumstances?   (There are bigger questions here, too, about why a man has to pay child support, but let’s leave those go.)

Second, the two families are seeking damages from the hospital–$158,300 dollars, according to the BBC.   What is the measure of damages?  How do we assess the harm that’s been done?   This is so often the hardest question in cases like this.

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