It was announced on Tuesday that Boots will be selling home paternity testing kits in all of its stores. These kits have been available over the counter at a few other chemists and online but this is the first time that they have been exposed to potentially millions of people.
The test results cannot be used for legal reasons – just ‘peace of mind’. Therefore another test must be carried out if evidence needs to be provided for a court case.
Also both parents must give their permission for the test to be carried out. Swabs from the mouths of the mother, father and child must be sent off along with a signature from the parents to show consent. This is different to most other home tests that are available where the mother does not have to be involved – although it is encouraged.
This story provides a topical route into discussing the science behind the tests: genetic fingerprinting otherwise known as DNA profiling. It also presents an opportunity to discuss ethical issues surrounding the fact that paternity tests are now readily available to anyone.
How will people come to terms with the results if they are not what they desired or expected? Will they cause more conflicts within families than they solve? The company that processes the results (Anglia DNA) are trying to address these issues and state that they are available for phone conversations throughout the process and can put families in touch with counselling services if they are required.
Surely there is a demand for this product. It is estimated that 1 in 25 fathers in the UK are not the biological father of their child. Affordable home testing kits give these men and children a way of finding this out – don’t they have the right to do this?
There is also the issue of taking into account the feelings of the child. It is fine if the child is too young to understand what is going on but what about if they are old enough to realise what the results mean. Is it right for the parents to decide to take this step in these circumstances?
Finally, the real hot issue surrounding this: will being able to buy your own paternity test put Jeremy Kyle out of a job? (Fingers crossed the answer’s positive on that one)
As this story contains lots of ethical issues, you may wish to use it as a topic for a class debate: Should it be this easy to get a paternity test? Alternatively you could get the students to research Anglia DNA’s website and act as representatives from the company who have to defend their test against the ethical questions that you throw at them.
For KS5 classes you could look at the development of the DNA profiling technique which was first discovered in 1984. Just 5 years ago it was a time-consuming, expensive procedure that could only be done in hospitals from blood samples. You could discuss advancements such as PCR which has enabled it to now be so quick and cheap.
The Paternity Testing PowerPoint can be used with a class when doing a topic on DNA profiling. It contains starter questions and information about how the test is carried out (including a link to an interactive lab where students can carry out the procedure themselves). The final two slides contain DNA profiles obtained from the paternity tests carried out on two families for the students to analyse. These can be printed out as sheets to give to groups.
They should see that in Family A, the DNA from the ‘father’ shows that he is not the biological father. This is because he shares none of DNA sequences with the baby (although you can see that the baby does share several with his mother).
In family B, there are matches between the son and the father but not the daughter. This shows that another man must be the biological father of the daughter.
News story from radio 1’s newsbeat.
Website of Anglia DNA who will carry out the tests.
Interactive DNA fingerprinting lab
If you decide to do a debate, you can create your own debating cards using the template from the ‘I’m a scientist’ website.
Interview with Sir Alec Jeffreys who discovered the DNA fingerprint.