DNA forms the building blocks of life for all of us. When a child is conceived it gets half of its DNA from each parent. Because of this, it’s possible to determine whether a man is the father of a child by analysing the DNA of each of them and comparing the results. These tests are made even more reliable if the mother also participates.

This article on DNA paternity tests is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

Usually around 15 genetic markers are analysed in both the man and the child. If the man’s DNA differs on two or more markers, then there is no chance that he can be the father. However, if there is a complete match on all markers there is a higher than 99.9% chance that he is the father of the child. This result is considered accurate enough to be legally binding in a court of law.

Why have it?

There are many reasons for wanting a DNA test. Most often they’re used to provide peace of mind, such as in cases where the mother had more than one partner around the time of conception, or when the assumed father denies responsibility. If you only want a test for your own reassurance then it can cost you less, as you can take the samples yourself and post them off. However, such results are not legally binding. A ‘peace-of-mind’ test will cost around £160.

Where there is a legal dispute as to paternity, the court may ask for a DNA test to establish the truth. In this case, all parties – the man, the child, and preferably the mother too – will have to attend the clinic to have the samples taken by a professional, under controlled circumstances. You will also need to provide proof of identity. These results will be legally binding and the test will cost around £350 - £400.

Whatever your reason for having the DNA paternity test, under the 2006 Human Tissue Act, all parties must give written consent unless ordered by the courts. The Hollywood scenario of taking hairs from a brush to prove paternity is simply not legal in the UK.

How is the test conducted?

The most common form of DNA test is done on cells scraped from the inside of the cheek. This is a quick and painless procedure done with what looks like a long cotton bud. The head of this bud is then released into a vial for transport to the lab, and sealed in tamper-proof packaging by your doctor or other trustworthy person. Often two sets of samples are taken for each patient to allow for double checking. Some collection systems involve rubbing the end of the swab onto a specially designed card, which is then sent off for analysis and the original swab is discarded.

The DNA is examined using hi-tech equipment and the results verified. These are then presented in a report to the individuals or the court. Each person who is tested has the right to see a copy of the report.

Is the test always accurate?

A DNA test undertaken by a reputable lab will always be reliable and accurate. The Department of Health sets out a Code of Practice on Genetic Paternity Testing, and you should ensure that the lab you choose follows this code. The prices described above are typical costs for the test in the UK, and it’s wise to avoid companies offering tests at a discount. These often do not follow the code, do not employ expert staff, or do not have the latest, most reliable equipment.

If a court orders a DNA paternity test, then you’ll have to use one of the eleven laboratories accredited by the Ministry of Justice. These undergo even closer scrutiny and provide the most accurate tests possible.

When can a test be done?

Since the procedure is simple and non-invasive, it is possible to have a paternity test done any time from birth, without risk to either party. Prenatal tests are also possible, although this will increase the risk of a miscarriage or still birth by up to 1%. This may not sound significant, but translates to one in one hundred babies. This risk should be considered very carefully before deciding to take an early test. You should also be aware that some of the more ethical DNA testing companies do not offer pre-natal testing and both the British Medical Association and the Human Genetics Commission recommend that it is avoided.

Preparing for the results 

In many cases, the result of a paternity test is simply a financial one, where child support payments have been in dispute. However, there are often many more serious implications, such as rights of access and parental responsibilities, which must be considered. There are also the feelings of the child to take into account. If these issues are likely to affect you, then it is wise to talk about them in advance and perhaps take some counselling in preparation.

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