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As genetic testing pins down paternity issues, the definition of fatherhood gets murkier.

Domestic policy shows up in the center's tests, too. In its quest to nudge public behavior, the federal government provides plenty of business for labs such as Schanfield's. For example, the Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 -- more commonly known as welfare reform -- requires states to offer fathers of children born out of wedlock a chance to acknowledge paternity of the new infant while the baby is still in the hospital. This was an effort mainly to bolster child-support payments. Later challenges to such signed paternity agreements are common, and they keep DNA testing labs humming.

Similarly, says Pauline Burton, director of Colorado's division of child-support enforcement, in an effort to better collect support payments, the federal government keeps track of how well each state establishes the paternity in its child-support enforcement cases. But the counting is not done merely out of curiosity. If a particular state does not finger the father in better than 90 percent of its cases, Washington begins cutting off funds as a punishment. Such a harsh approach inspires still more paternity tests.

Yet many tests performed at the lab are merely small, private stories that hint of personal tragedy or fantastic familial complexity. The ten-year-old girl whose aborted fetus was tested so that prosecutors could prove a case of incest. The family of seven children whose mother, on her deathbed, revealed that not all of the siblings shared the same father. Now in their forties and older, they came to the lab thinking one of them had a stranger for a dad. Instead, testing revealed three different fathers.

Joe Forkan

For the lab employees, such news is like headlines from the National Enquirer -- startling, even lurid, yet without the substance and context that fleshes out the lives behind the muddled genes. And despite the high-probability numbers and sound scientific principals that form the bedrock of the business, the human details of the stories themselves almost always remain mysteries.

What, for example, to make of the man whose genes keep popping up in paternity cases in one rural Colorado county? Or the woman who needed seven brothers tested because any one of them could have been the father of her child? Or the father who knew for certain that the first and second children of his marriage were his, but wondered about the third and so arranged for genetic screening? (Testing proved that only the second was his.)

The answer, say testers, is that science is only one fractional measure of a family. "Families are far more complicated than anyone thinks," says Schanfield. "We simply provide the difference between belief and knowledge."

"DNA doesn't lie," adds Carla Wirtz, director of The Laboratories at Bonfils/Parentage Testing Laboratory, Colorado's only other accredited paternity-testing facility. "I tell my clients, we can prove you're the father." "But," she continues, "that is all. DNA says nothing about who is a parent -- who is raising the child, taking him to school, changing his diapers, teaching him morals. That has nothing to do with genetics."

As Ron and Anne's daughter grew, their life became a familiar mixture of pleasure and problems, satisfaction and strife. "We were like a normal family," Ron explains. Both he and Anne had settled into good, lucrative jobs, each earning close to $40,000 a year. They bought a nice house in Aurora.

They also seemed willing to let personal bygones be bygones. Anne had finally admitted to sleeping with her acquaintance, but she'd also assured Ron that the affair was over. Ron promised that he'd forgiven her. As far as their daughter was concerned, he says, "The tension that had been there wasn't anymore because I had resigned myself that she was my child."

Nevertheless, the partnership was also growing unsettled. Six months after their daughter was born, Ron says, the couple ceased being intimate. "She didn't love me like a wife loves a husband," he says. "Eventually, I stopped trying to have sex."

Ron himself was not blameless. In early 1991, while Anne was pregnant, he had let his doubts about her fidelity consume him until he'd secretly started seeing another woman. "In my mind, I'd said, 'What's good for you is good for me,'" he recalls. Six months after Anne gave birth to their daughter, Ron's girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy.

By the end of 1991, Ron says, he had called off the relationship, telling the woman he wanted to try to make his marriage work. However, the damage had already been done. The woman telephoned Anne and told her about Ron's son.

In spite of their shattered trust, Ron and Anne decided to follow the advice of their minister and remain married. "We stayed together through the help of a lot of prayer," Ron explains. "And by overlooking a lot of obvious problems."

From all outward appearances, they were an intact, traditional family: Ron and Anne and their two daughters. They vacationed together, taking a cruise to the Bahamas as well as trips to Disney World and to Texas to visit relatives.

And despite the currents of dissatisfaction between husband and wife, Ron and his younger daughter seemed able to separate themselves from the stress. They were extremely close. He bought her clothes; she helped him around the house. "She was daddy's baby," he says. "A real daddy's girl."

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