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Daddy dearest put to the test

With more children being born as a result of casual relationships, it's no wonder paternity tests the only way of determining a child's parentage are on the rise. Gemma O'Doherty reports

A heavily pregnant Mona Lisa gazes down from a billboard overlooking a Californian freeway. Beneath her smiling face, written in large print, is the burning question: ``Who's the daddy?'' The ad lists a freephone number of a genetic laboratory that carries out paternity testing. ``Call now to find out.''

Provocative advertisements like this one, used to market the booming paternity testing industry in the United States, would barely cause an eyelid to bat on an American sidewalk, but by the end of the year, when they are erected on Irish hoardings, they will surely cause more than a little controversy, if not a snigger or two from passers-by.

As in the US and Britain, paternity testing in this country is becoming a serious issue for growing numbers of people who are confused about their own parentage or that of their children's.

Before the advent of casual sex, co-habitation and divorce, paternity testing was a shameful, secretive business kept behind the closed doors of family courts and the homes of scorned mistresses. But now it is about to hit the popular marketplace to meet the needs of a dramatically changing society.

Increasing numbers of GPs and clinics are already offering paternity testing here, and, cashing in on what they see as virgin territory, international genetics companies are soon to target Ireland, launching major advertising campaigns to promote their services.

In the US, a variety of studies, conducted mainly for the purposes of understanding genetically transmitted diseases, have found that up to 20pc of people are calling the wrong person `daddy'.

Moreover, they show that one in three men who come expecting to confirm that they are the fathers of their offspring is sorely mistaken.

While the figures in this country are not thought to be nearly as high, there is growing evidence that relaxed attitudes towards sex among young people is changing the landscape. There are concerns that a sizeable number of babies born today have question marks over their parentage and, while marriage has never been a guarantee of fatherhood, the fact that one in four Irish children is now born outside wedlock inevitably muddies the waters.

``A lot of children are the product of casual relationships nowadays,'' says Tony Tuite from the voluntary association for parents' rights, Parental Equality.

``That is the reality and it means that many men are having doubts about whether or not they are the real father. Although the numbers are not as high as in America, up to five per cent of Irish children could be calling the wrong man their father.

``This is not only a symptom of today's short term relationships. We are seeing men in happy marriages and long term stable relationships finding out they are not the natural father, in some cases years after the child is born. Deceit and infidelity are a fact of life nowadays and Ireland is no different to anywhere else.''

At the country's largest paternity testing clinic in Dublin's Blackrock Clinic, three new cases of uncertain parentage are processed a week, compared to just two a month when the service was first provided four years ago.

Children receive half of their DNA from each of their parents. Therefore, in order to determine paternal identification, DNA samples are taken from the mother, child, and one or more alleged fathers.

At a cost of £570, a simple blood test is taken from them, sent to the UK for analysis, and within four weeks a result is returned which carries 99pc proof.

While many of those using paternity testing services are young mothers trying to pin down fathers who are denying paternity and refusing to pay child support, Irish clinics are seeing a wide variety of cases which involve custody issues, family disputes over inheritance, adoption complications or suspicious men seeking peace of mind.

``We see cases right across the board,'' says Ursula Pattison, administrator of the Blackrock Clinic Paternity Testing Service.

``There is no typical example. Some people have been ordered to come here through the courts or have been referred by their solicitors or GPs. We don't get too involved in the details of each case, but we are seeing more people using the service.''

The largest paternity testing company in the world, Identigene, which is based in Texas and runs a mail order service in Europe, plans to expand its services in Ireland later in the year beginning with an advertising campaign. Already, it has a growing customer base here.

The company conducts DNA tests which do not require a blood sample. A simple home kit is sent to the client, from which a swab is taken from cheek cells of the mouth of the mother, alleged father and child. This is returned to the lab in the US and the result is shipped back to this country within a matter of weeks.

``We have processed about 20 cases from Ireland so far and we expect a significantly larger market when we advertise there,'' says Caroline Caskey, President of Identigene, which receives an average of 400 calls a day and solves 200 cases a week.

``We are interested in developing an office in Ireland that would communicate with Irish clients and help co-ordinate their sample collections. All testing could continue to be done in the US, since it is fastest and most economical here. It only takes about three to five days once we have the samples, and the cost is just $500.''

Demand for DNA testing has also been boosted by the introduction of divorce in this country, which has spurned a series of bitter custody battles in the courts, some of which inevitably introduce doubts over paternity, especially if a wife has been unfaithful around the time of conception.

Like genetic labs, family lawyers are also noticing a growth in the number of clients involved in parentage disputes.

``We see a variety of cases,'' says Brian Doyle, a Dublin based solicitor and specialist in family law.

``They vary from situation to situation. You might have a natural father who, out of resentment for a girlfriend, decides not to co-operate and pay maintenance. She may then issue proceedings and the court can order him to have a DNA test.

``The only way to prove a father is the natural father is by having the test but usually it is the mother who comes to us first.

``Family law in this country is very strict. A man could have to pay maintenance of £60 a week which, over 18 years, amounts to a lot of money. If there is any doubt at all over paternity, most people want to have it resolved.''