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At What Cost DNA?

by Christine Grillo

You can't argue with DNA—and with paternity tests becoming more affordable, U.S. courts increasingly rely on them to resolve disputes in child support cases.

The $100 investment per child turns out to be a good bet for courts. As part of a study that examined a national database of paternity establishment cases, David Bishai, MD, PhD, MPH, and Nan Astone, PhD, associate professors of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, found that roughly 75 percent of the men test positive for paternity.

Interestingly, Bishai and Astone conducted the study in order to establish predictive factors, looking at age, race and ethnicity—and they found that there are no predictive factors. Regardless of race or age, three out of four men are established as biological fathers.

Bishai and Astone would like to follow up their studies with research that documents the aftermath of court-ordered paternity testing. By following the mother-child-man triads after the test results come back, they might be able to learn about the impact of establishing (or excluding) paternity, for better or for worse.

While this test solves one riddle—Who's your daddy?—it leaves behind a trail of questions.

Will men step up when the proof is in the pudding? Bishai wonders if those proof-positive 75 percent will make greater financial commitments to their children, and whether they will put in more time with their child(ren) as well.

What happens with the men excluded from paternity? As far as Bishai knows, no studies have been done on what happens to all those ad hoc families after the test results come back. And the answer to that question could have a huge impact on policies that mandate paternity tests in disputes.

Are we reducing fathers to meal tickets? With so much emphasis on financial responsibility, we may be taking attention away from the intangible (and largely unstudied) benefits bestowed by fathers.