Mobile DNA Testing and the Nature of Fatherhood

Here’s a story that’s been sitting on my desktop for a long time.   On some level, I’m just not sure what to make of it–what it tells us about the nature of fatherhood.   It’s about an RV that tools around NYC with the words “Who’s Your Daddy” emblazoned on the side.   It offers on the spot DNA testing to establish paternity.

Compare the two stories that are featured early on.  Think about what this tells us about what it means to bea  father.

In the first, a man who has clearly been deeply involved in a child’s life–who is clearly committed to the child–learns, to his horror, that he is not genetically related to the boy.   It’s tragic that this knowledge would fundamentally alter his relationship to the child.  Isn’t that relationship–five years in–based on something far more than strands of chromosomes?   I cannot help but think (although I’ll grant you I know very little about the case) that he is truly the only father the boy has ever known.

It’s true that he has learned something that might seriously undermine his relationship with the boy’s mother–she was unfaithful to him, she lied to him.  I get that he may feel betrayed.   But should this information destroy his relationship with the boy?  To be fair, I don’t know that it will.   There’s nothing to tell us that.  But I worry.

Then there’s the second story–a 20-year-old and a 44-year-old discovered that they were gentically father/daughter.   She’d been looking for the man for a long time.

Now I think it is great that she found him.   I think it wonderful that they can have contact and develop a relationship.   Obviously this is something they both want and I wish them well.   But when she says “you’re my father” what does that tell us about what it means to be a father?  Is it really just strings of chromosomes.

It’s this underlying assumption–that DNA testing shows us some truth about who is the father of the child–that really disturbs me.  Of course it does show you the truth about who is the genetic father.   But people here aren’t using that modifier–they’re talking “this is the father.”  I know that’s not a legal description–I think it is a social description.

And that bothers me.  It suggests that being a social father isn’t about the time you spend, the love you give, the support you offer.    It’s just about genes.   It’s no particular effort.   It’s a fact that exists and will continue to exist whether you invest in the relationship with the child or not.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that all fathers are merely genetic relatives–plenty are involved and committed and deeply loving.   But the many who has never before met his 20 year old daughter seems to count just as much as a father–maybe even more–as the man who has the boy’s face tattooed on his chest.   And that, it seems to me, is wrong.

I’d like to see the category “father”–as used in a social sense–mean something more.  I’d like to see it be about taking responsibility, investing, being there.   I don’t think the  “Who’s Your Daddy” truck brings out the best in us.   “““““““““““““““““““““““““`


32 responses to “Mobile DNA Testing and the Nature of Fatherhood

  1. Julie, this is what I try to tell you frequently. You may insist that it doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, wouldn’t matter, but you are clearly aware that it does matter to many people. So why do you consistently promote laws that attempt to completely ignore this fact of our culture?

    • I guess there are two closely related reasons I do this–one pragmatic, the other larger and more philosophical.

      First, I think the law ought to aim to do what is right for the children who are enmeshed in these sorts of situations. I don’t think letting the man who is the only father that the five-year-old has known walk away is good for the child.

      Second (and these tie so closely that maybe I shouldn’t even say there are two reasons), I think the law can lead as well as follow. There are countless ocassions where law has been crafted to show the better path rather than one shaped by popular sentiment. So, for example, law said discrimination based on race was wrong even though lots of individuals were perfectly happy to discriminate based on race. In time, the law’s insistence that race discrimination is wrong helped to lead many people to that conclusion. I know that many other forces contributed to this process and that it isn’t complete–there are still people who think that race discrimination is okay. But law played a positive and a constructive role in resetting the norms to be inclusive.

      We get to choose our law here. We can choose to confirm the popular sentiments about DNA and genetic connection or not. We can reinforce the belief that DNA is what really matters (by aligning the law with that view) or not. I think the better course–better for children generally–is not to reinforce that sentiment. I worry that reinforcing that sentiment leaves us thinking that as long as a man can point to the genetic link, he’s a parent and he don’t actually have to step up and play the part and that if he finds out he doesn’t have the genetic link he can/should just walk away.

      I suppose the bottom line is I don’t think it is necessarily the case that the law has to reflect popular beliefs. It can be better than that.

      I’m also not sure there’s really a single “fact” here. Surely some people think DNA is all important and other people think it isn’t. If the law reflects one view it fails to reflect the other. So if law made DNA all-important, I suppose I could ask why the law shouldn’t reflect the “fact” that some people think DNA that isn’t all-important. Doesn’t this just take us back to what the law should be in instances where it cannot fully reflect competing beliefs?

      • “First, I think the law ought to aim to do what is right for the children who are enmeshed in these sorts of situations. I don’t think letting the man who is the only father that the five-year-old has known walk away is good for the child. ”

        Julie I don’t think you are representing your position accurately. Time and time again you apply your anti-DNA preference to situations where relationships have barely been formed- in some cases havent been formed at all, such as when the kid is just born.

        • In addition, I don’t think you are representing others’ positions accurately either. You present the issue as between the extremes of “DNA is everything” vs “DNA is nothing.” When in actuality most people would agree if you said that DNA is important but there could be other criteria are more important. Then the discussion would be about drawing the lines- a totally different discussion.

          • Your point is well taken. One could have some sort of hybrid system. And my point isn’t that DNA is completely unimportant–it is that it shouldn’t determine legal parentage.

            I think, too, that I offer hypotheticals, like the one in the preceeding post, that are designed to make the choice stark, with no middle ground. that’s because while those cases may actually be rare they reveal something about the underlying structure by which we make choices. When there is no middle ground and you have to choose DNA or nurture, which do you go with? It forces the issue.

            But as I say, your point is well-taken. In many instances one can probably find some sort of middle ground that takes account of multiple factors. The more it has multiple factors, though, the harder it is to predict a particular outcome, which is its own problem.

        • I think you are probably right and that’s because I have a drive towards consistency. How can I say that the DNA isn’t important in one setting but is in a different one? I suppose there are ways, but I haven’t played out how that would look. It’s possible that you could use DNA for a newborn but not later, I guess. But I do think I’ve just tried to be consistent.

          Then again, maybe I haven’t succeeded. Here the child was five.

          • What you can do is establish what the genetic connection does and does not mean. It should mean that people with offspring have an obligation to their offspring to raise them. And then if they fail to do that properly for instance and the child is unsafe in those people’s care, THEN you look to other people who might take better care of the child. Or if the parents wish to find someone else to raise their child for them, THEN you look to ways where the transfer from the biological parent’s care to other people is investigated by a disinterested third party looking for signs that the parents were paid off not to raise their child etc and you get the whole thing documented and approved by a judge who is hopefully not being paid to render a particular decision. DNA is not everything, it simply establishes who is responsible for the child’s existence and who is therefore responsible for sustaining it except in situations that are emergencies.

          • On any number of occassions I’ve pressed you on whether you’d be willing to say that minors have no right to be financially supported by their genetic parents – essentially getting rid of the paternity test and child support as we know it for parents who were never married especially. Your response has been that no, you would not want to take away the children’s financial support but you would not want them to be legal parents. So let’s explore that a little.

            If you were making up that law you would say that everyone is born entitled to the support of their genetic parents for sure, but those people would not necessarily be the child’s legal daily grind parents, is that correct?

            Because as yucky as I think that is, many rights currently lost to people with falsified birth records could be attained by simply establishing they are indeed the offspring of two particular people that owe them a duty of support while under 18. Being documented as their offspring alone would give them the right to have all of their genetic kinship relationships legally recognized with all the various benefits that go along with that: the right to help siblings imigrate, the right to take time off work to attend a funeral or take care of a sick relative and the right to claim relatives as dependents on tax returns. Truly that would be an enormous step forward in allowing people to have their true identity legally recognized and would allow them the right to be supported by their genetic parents. If other people were their daily legal parents for reasons of good cause and those people came by their possession of the child in an ethical and above board fashion with no money exchanging hands, really, even I would find it hard to argue.

  2. To the dedicated father, It is fully understandable that this is a crisis in his relationship with the kid, which I hope they will overcome and continue to have a closer, maybe even closer than before relationship- although it will still be DIFFERENT. (though not necessarily worse or better!)
    I am more familiar with this situation from the kid’s point of view.

    • This raises and excellent point which I really didn’t discuss at all–the view of the child.

      It’s not that I think the DNA doesn’t matter at all. It is irrefutable proof of a historical fact. Assuming there’s no ART (and of course in these cases there isn’t) the mother had sex with another man. Perhaps she mislead the father–about the fact of having had sex or about the likelihood of the genetic relationship. Trust was breached. Assumptions were made and all sorts of things were constructed based on those assumptions. When it is all torn apart, there are serious consequences.

      In my best (and admittedly imaginary) world these consquences would NOT include the man saying/thinking “this is not my child/I am not his father.” (He might say/think instead “this is not my genetic child/I am not his genetic father.”) Thus, much might change but this very existence of the relationship–the psychological/social relationship–would not be called into question.

      I’m sure we agree it would be far better if everyone knew the truth from the get-go. That’s surely what I’d hope for/aim for. But there will be instances where that isn’t going to happen and so this is about coping with those situations.

      • You’re getting closer because your trying to take on the viewpoint of the minor who has lost because of his mother’s inability to tell the truth.
        When you are not the offspring of someone named as a parent on your birth certificate the law treats you differently and you don’t have the same rights as everyone else. Those lost rights are numerous and are not insignificant. I have listed them many times before – the things lost are not things that can be replaced by the person standing in and doing the work for the estranged parent. That person did not need to be stripped of those rights; they could have had their actual parent listed on their birth record and formed a significant relationship with whoever was raising them as a guardian or step parent or foster parent etc – they could have added family to their existing family rather than having to loose a family to gain one that would have been there anyway since DNA is of no damned importance to them anyway.
        So through the child’s eyes it might be fine to continue the emotional relationship with the step father but now that everything is out in the open should’nt his father be held accountable for his actions and provide what he owes to the child in every possible way? The fact that someone else stepped in to do the work does not mean that the child was ever entitled to have that person do the work, he’s lucky someone did the work and it would be lovely if they wanted to continue doing the work but it was never that person’s responsibility it was his father’s responsibility and his father cannot pay his debt to his kid using someone else’s labor and effort. Failing to correct an error in the determination of paternity cheats the kid out of everything they deserve and frankly the adults involved owe the child much more than maintaining consistency they owe him their joint collaborative effort to resolve the situation in a way where the child gets all that he deserves from everyone whose duty it was to take care of him and they owe it to him to work hard at making the transition as positive as possible. But that means holding people accountable for their own offspring and not letting them off the hook just because someone else was willing to take over without ever going through a formal adoption.

        How is that fair to all the guys who would love to be dead beat dads and not have their wages attached? Nobody overlooked their DNA test when it came to making their nonintentional butts Fathers. Where is their free ride? Where is their proxy paternity fraud Daddy Lite? What about all the people that have to go through the stress of back ground checks and waiting lists in order to adopt a child when some guys can just pretend that their step child is their own offspring? How is that fair to them? Why does anyone need court approval to raise kids that are not their own offspring if some poeple have found ways around it like paying people for their offspring before they are even conceived let alone born? Out the gate those kids are screwed for life they never stood a chance their rights get bargained away.

        If everyone was held to the same rules then everyone would have equal rights. There would be no lawful instances where some people became parents of children that were not their own offspring without first getting court approval. So there would be no lawful instances where people were thwarted in their efforts to provide for their own offspring and there would be no instances where failing to care for their own offspring was something people could get away with scott free. It should be a crime to prevent people from being held accountable to and for their offspring

        • I know this seems like just a word game, but there are different ways to look at this and the difference matters.

          People are treated the same vis-a-vis legal parents. What I mean is that all legal parent/child relationships are (possibly I should say “should be”) treated the same, whether they are rooted in genetics or not.

          I think the difference is that not all genetic parent/child relationships are treated the same. Some genetic parents are also legal parents automotically. Some are not.

          I think you can also frame this from the child’s point of view. Children have the same rights vis-a-vis their legal parents, no matter how the legal parents got to be legal parents. But children do not have the same rights vis-a-vis their genetic parents. Some children have recognized legal relationships with their genetic parents and some do not. This last difference can properly be raised as potentially problematic–and I think that’s what you are doing, yes?

          It’s the differential treatment of the genetic parent/child relationships that you find troubling, I think.

  3. Julie,

    If a mother surrendered one child to adoption (voluntary domestic infant adoption for clarity) and then raised two other children is she wrong to state she has three children? Specfically that she is the mother of three children? Facts prove she is the mother…despite the reality that one of those three children also has a different social mother…she is still the mother of three children.

    You can add labels denoting the status of who is the day to day mother, but you cannot undo the reality of the fact that she conceived, nurtured, and birthed three children. By definition, baring the child makes you the mother of the child as far back in time as you wish to go.

    To me it is appropriate to add labels when a child is not raised by the genetic parents, i.e. step-parent, adoptive parent, defacto parent, foster parent because they came after the fact and were legally created status.

    • logic. so nice.

    • You are confused. A birth mother who places her child for adoption has much more than just a genetic connection to the child. To imply that a birth mother is in the same category as an egg donor is insulting to birth mothers.

      • I’ve given birth. Another woman could just as easily given birth to my child and she’d be no more related to that woman than to a man walking down the street. Biologically I’d be her mother if she were gestated in the kitchen sink; my cells would be reproducing in her body. Sure she’d be nourishing my embryo but those would not be her cells or her blood or any of the rest of the stuff that makes a child someone’s biological child. There is a tremendous bout of selective understanding going on in the world of women who gestate donor pregnancies. They believe that their cells multiply and that their blood courses through the veins of the fetus and the born child they actually believe the baby is their biological child and that the only thing different is that their bio child has another woman’s dna. They’re wrong. The ASRM is a good resource. Google ASRM and Biological mother – the egg donor is the biological mother. Does the egg donor bond with the gestating fetus? Who know’s? That is all psychological mindset of the women involved. No real bonding can go on until there is a separate individual alive on earth to bond with. The actual daily caregiving of a real child is what earns people their stripes in terms of who the kid attaches to and thinks of as a mother.

        I’m just saying gestating a baby does not a bio mother make.

      • If an egg donor says she has no children, just because she does not happen to know if her reproductive services were successful, she’s being a weasel and a liar. She knows she wanted to reproduce and not raise some of her own kids. She knows she was selected because it was highly likely that she’d be able to reproduce and if she was asked to donate a second time she can be damn sure the first time worked…its way too expensive to call back a dud

        • I’m sure there are women who have provided eggs who are asked “do you have kids” and who answer “no.” Perhaps where we differ is that I think the answer could be “true.” (I put “true” in quotes here because it is a slipperly concept.)

          If the question was understood as being “are you raising kids?” then I think the answer is “no” even if you know for sure there’s a kid you are genetically related to. If the question is “do you have any genetic offspring” then the answer is either “yes” or “not sure.”

          So the question (for me) is when someone asks “do you have kids”” what are the asking? I think it depends on context.

          In a medical exam it might mean have you been pregnant and given birth or it might mean do you have genetic offspring. Hopefully the questioner would make it clear. But I’ve asked this question (Do you have kids?) many times in a casual social context–neighborhood party, say–and I do not mean to be inquiring into the person’s history as egg provider. I mean to be asking about whether you are raising kids right now. I want to know because I’m your neighbor and I have kids and if our kids are the same age there could be carpools. If yours are older, maybe they’ll babysit. The “do you have kids” question, understood this way, isn’t just intrusive–it’s getting at useful information.

          Now maybe I don’t make it clear enough what I’m asking and the neighbor answers the wrong question. (If she did, I might be thinking “too much information,” by the way.) But I think this question is commonly pretty well understood. In the same way I often ask my students when they come talk to me about the stresses of law school if they have kids–because if they’re raising kids, that’s important to know. I think in context they usually understand the question.

          All I mean, I guess, is that the way we commonly talk is often quite ambiguous. The “do you have kids” question can be understood various ways. We generally figure it out from context and, with luck, we understand it the same way. To be really specific, though, I don’t think everyone understands that question as “do you have genetic offspring?”

    • I think the answer to the “how many children do you have?” question might depend on context. Sometimes context might call for the legal answer–like if it is about eligiblity for financial aid, say. Then having the two children who were adopted isn’t important as there is only one being raised by the mother. But if a doctor asked you, surely the answer is three–because physically you’ve had three children and you’ve given birth three times.

      I think this must come up over and over again for women in the position you imagine. Countless times I’ve stood on a soccer sideline and asked another parent “do you have other kids?” The woman in your question has to stop and think about what it is I’m asking and why I want to know, I suppose. Does she tell me about the child she gave birth to a long time ago but placed for adoption? It’s probably not the answer I expect but it might be the answer she wants to give. Or maybe she just wants to make it simple that morning and talk about the children she’s raising right now.

      I suppose my point is that I don’t know what she’d answer and I don’t even know what I was asking for or why–just making conversation–looking for other possible connections (older children in the same grade, say). I’ve actually asked a much more challenging question than I meant to and she has to take some time and energy to figure out how to answer it (though imagine that these questions get asked so frequently people get to have regular answers to them.)

    • motherhood is complicated because for most people, motherhood means pregnancy and childbirth. although technology has outpaced us psychologically , i still believe one can not compare egg donation to adoption.

      • the egg donor didn’t give up a child whose existence she was aware of; at the time she gave the eggs she wasn’t a mother. A birth mother is.

        • K
          Nobody can call themselves the parent of a child that has not been born or conceived yet.
          A woman who donates her reproductive services signs paperwork agreeing to do more than hand over an egg. She agrees to reproduce and agrees not to take care of her offspring if and when any are born. If she did not agree to let others have her children they would not bother paying for her eggs.

      • I think that the whole pregnancy/birth thing makes motherhood fundamentally different from fatherhood. Fatherhood may just mean genetic relationship to a lot of people. But certainly for some people the core of motherhood is pregnancy rather than genetics. Not for everyone and maybe not forever. But still, it is different and it’s hard to grapple with that difference.

  4. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it does.

    The law may be able to lead opinion, but when it comes to enforcing a law that is too far removed from what most people believe, it would be very unwise not to consider the consequences. They shouldn’t be that far apart.

    I don’t see why the definition of a father can’t encompass both the bio relationships and the social ones. They have never always been embodied in one person anyway. It also doesn’t say anything about the quality of the relationship, which I think is what you are getting at.

    • I agree that the law probably shouldn’t be too far removed from what people actually do. There are all sorts of problems when it is badly out of whack.

      As for why the legal definition of “father” cannot encompass both (I assume this is what you mean) I suppose it could but then some children would have two fathers as well as a mother. And you might want to give the two fathers–the social one and the genetic one–different sets of rights. This is actually the direction I lean, which you can see elsewhere–some recognition of both relationships. The question, of course, is what recognition. Equal? If not, who gets more? And so on.

      • Then 2 mothers as well right if the woman who carried is unrelated? I grow concerned that there is a growing belief that the carrier is bio related for real. On PVED they say that the carriers cells reproduce absent the DNA. They also say the child shares the carriers blood. Pretty scarry misconceptions.
        (Pun unintended but it works.)

    • great point about balancing law and society!

  5. “It’s this underlying assumption–that DNA testing shows us some truth about who is the father of the child–that really disturbs me.”

    Agreed! And that’s why I hate terms like “genetic mother” or “genetic father.” But you don’t get the title of “father” merely by contributing your genetics. I prefer the term “genetic contributor” to reflect both the role of sperm donors and “deadbeat dads.”

    • Catherine, do you think that some children don’t deserve to be supported by both of the individuals who reproduced to create them? If so, which children don’t deserve care and support from both people and why? What would they need to do in your eyes to deserve to have the government go looking for their biological fathers the way that the government goes looking for other children’s biological fathers? And those men that don’t deserve the title of father, do they simply stop having to support their children since their prior lack of care giving action has cost them thier title of parent? They were lazy and now get rewarded by being let off the hook?

      Not a very child centered position to take. Seems to cost the child a tremendous amount and all anyone gets is the satisfaction of stripping a man of his parental title as if it were a badge of honor someone had to earn rather than the word we use for men with offspring who have a duty to take care of their kids.

  6. A man who is falsely led to believe he is irrevocably and indelibly forever genetically related to a child will have based his relationship with the child on that premise and the relationship is bound to change, though not necessarily for the worse.

    It’s not evil to base one’s parental relationship with a child on such a premise – after all, we’re not expected to devote ourselves fully and altruistically to all the children in the world, or any random child in the street.

    If a good friend of mine introduces me to her new baby, I’ll say “Aw, he’s cute, here’s a present for you, I’ll babysit sometime” but that’s where my bond and responsibility end. If she claims she somehow stole my egg while I was having surgery or some other preposterous story, and I believe her, I WILL look at the child differently – as my own biological offspring, part of my ancestral line, with whom I share many common traits and to whom I owe support and guidance. I’ll want to at least have more access to the child. If she says she was only joking and the baby is really hers, that makes things change again.- I will probably have become a favorite aunt by then, and will continue to see the child, but will not feel the same kind of obligation and commitment.

    This is pretty crazy, but that’s as close as I could come to creating a female/female scenario where a bio mother is the one placed in the poor uncertain father’s position.

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