The decision by Boots to stock a DNA testing kit in their UK stores has been labelled irresponsible by ethical commentators who argue that family bonds are too fragile and complex to be bought off the shelf.
As the cuckold is revealed, the studio audience roars. On screen, electronic bleeps offer the only protection from the curses denoting humiliation, anger and grief. For producers of the grubbiest daytime television, the novelty of exposing the ultimate betrayal never wears off.
Now, thanks to the wonders of science, the very same drama could be coming to a store near you. Last week, Britain’s biggest high street chemist announced plans to stock its shelves with a £30 paternity test to check a man’s DNA against that of the child his partner has carried. For some scientists and those with an interest in genetics, the decision by Boots constitutes a sort of progress, replacing a hazy world of suspicion and mistrust with lab-coated certainty.
Gamely, the makers of the tests go further, with reassurance that the kit will provide families across the country with “peace of mind”. Yet psychologists and commentators on ethics see in the commercial decision something quite different; the power of cheap technology to destroy complex and fragile bonds holding thousands of lives together.
Eleven years ago, Alastair Bridges (not his real name) underwent such a test. He had separated from his wife almost a decade earlier, leaving her to bring up their three children, with whom he continued to have a good relationship. The youngest had just turned 16 when an argument with her mother became heated. At that moment, his former wife dropped the bombshell: the man the child called Dad was not her father at all.
“It was actually something that I had always felt slightly suspicious about, something had nagged for a long time,” Mr Bridges recalls, “but once that had been said, we had to find out the truth.”
They visited his family doctor, who carried out blood tests. Three weeks later each received a letter, which they opened together. “There it was in black and white; we were not related. We both went very quiet.”
Today, he says, he is glad to know the truth. In the end the revelation did not affect the relationship profoundly; a 16-year bond could not be cast aside by a mere incident of biology, however fundamental.
But what if he had been able to pick up a cheap test more than a decade previously, when the doubts about the child’s paternity first began to nag? “If we had taken this test when she was a newborn, it really could have changed everything. It might all have been different,” he says sadly.
While paternity bombshells provide easy fodder for reality TV and soap-opera cliffhangers, many people assume this is not an issue that affects “people like them”. One professor of public health wonders who they are trying to kid. Research by Professor Mark Bellis, director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, suggests that one in 25 children in Britain has been sired by someone other than the man who believes he is the father.
“For some reason, this is an issue that gets discussed in the media and on TV shows much more than it ever does by scientists – despite the fact infidelity is pretty much part of the human condition,” says Prof Bellis. The national rate of around four per cent masks the wildest of variations; in deprived areas, with higher proportions of younger and unmarried parents, it rises to 30pc, research shows.
Prof Bellis believes that children need to know who their biological parents are. “Genetics are important to people’s health; this is stuff that your doctor and even your insurance company needs to know.” But is this a conversation that starts in the aisle of a chemist? “It is a really difficult area. I think it is a good thing that people understand their genetic and biological relationships: the question is how do you stop people from hurting each other or themselves with this information?”
On Thursday, one man spoke of his pain for the first time. Property mogul Pierre Rolin was in a relationship with socialite Helen Macintyre when she became pregnant with a baby girl, who is now 16 months.
It was not until after Stephanie was born that Miss Macintyre told Mr Rolin of her doubts about who the father was. Paternity tests have confirmed that Mr Rolin is not the child’s father – whom he believes to be the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Speculation had already been rife since he had moved out of the family home last summer amid claims that the child was a result of an affair between her husband and his former art adviser. Neither Mr Johnson nor Miss Macintyre have ever commented on the resemblance between the child’s features and flaxen hair, and that of the Mayor. Mr Rolin is certain of his views – and on Thursday accused Mr Johnson of having “no moral compass”.
Last month, BBC news presenter Justin Webb delivered a story with a difference, revealing that his real father was Peter Woods, the television newsreader who was a household name in the 1960s. Woods was married with two young children when he had an affair with Webb’s mother, Gloria Crocombe, after her first marriage had foundered.
Mr Webb, 50, was brought up by his stepfather when his mother married again, and said he had always known who his biological father was but felt no connection because the secret was “so deeply buried”. Even when he followed him into journalism, he did not make contact with him, only going public last month when his own children began asking “why Daddy didn’t have a father”.
Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in male fertility at the University of Sheffield, believes the availability of quick and easy paternity tests could fundamentally change these sorts of attitudes. “The science of this doesn’t worry me, but the social implications of it do. This opens up the possibility of paternity testing for the masses, and I think that will create an awful lot of anxiety and gnashing of teeth.” While the decisions of some pregnant women to leave their partners in “blind ignorance and suspicion” may not be honest, he adds, in many cases the alternative may be far more destructive.
Support for that view comes from a surprising source. Darren Jamieson, founder of pressure group CSA Hell, which assists parents with problems over child maintenance, believes the sheer temptation of over-the-counter paternity tests could in itself poison a faltering relationship.
“It seems very wrong to me that you can walk into Boots and buy something that can split up a family unit,” says the father-of-three. “That’s bad news for the couple and for the child; whatever the result is, the mistrust generated by asking for these tests could do irreparable damage.”
While such a decision could be taken in moments – as long as consent is given by both adults, with proof of identification – Dr Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, thinks that few would rush into it. “The problem is the medical advances can move so much faster than our morality can adjust to. But, however easy it is to get hold of tests, in the end I would be surprised if anyone took a decision to take them lightly.”
In her own clinical practice, she has counselled several men considering undergoing paternity tests. Such men were more likely to be seeking proof of paternity, in order to gain access to a child, than attempting to prove that the offspring is not their responsibility.
The £30 Boots kit, called AssureDNA, comes with swabs to collect cells from inside the cheek. The results are placed inside sterilised envelopes and sent for processing, at a cost of an extra £130 for results in five days – or £329 for those impatient to get the result within 24 hours.
Dr David Jones, Director of the Roman Catholic Anscombe Bioethics Centre, believes companies should not be able to profit from revelations which could tear families apart, and leave children without a father figure. “It is irresponsible to leave these decisions to the free market and not think about the consequences for children and families. The whole idea of taking a paternity test shows a breakdown of trust, and even if the test is positive, the trust has been damaged.”
In many cases, unease about paternity can fester for decades – and when bombshells emerge, the impact can ricochet across families and lovers old and new. The model Daisy Lowe, now 22, was 14 years old when paternity tests revealed that her father was a rock singer, Gavin Rossdale, with whom her mother, Pearl Lowe, had a one-night stand. The rock star was a family friend, and had been named as the child’s godfather, but the disclosure reportedly caused tensions, not just between father and daughter, but also with Rossdale’s rock-star wife Gwen Stefani, who had yet to have children when the results emerged.
However, Dr Oliver James, child psychologist and author of How Not to F––– Them Up, thinks too many people are “obsessed” by genetics. He believes strong families and relationships are built on the bonds they forge, not on the basis of human biology. “I think the problem is that people see parenting as the transmission of some essence of self – that is delusional garbage. Genes are the least important thing of all of it. The relationships are what matter.
“If someone asked my advice about buying one of these tests, I would advise them to see a good psychotherapist instead.”
Some names have been changed