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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 16:51 GMT 17:51 UK
Analysis: Banning secret DNA tests
DNA
DNA can be obtained from blood, skin and saliva
test hello test
By Ray Dunne
BBC News Online health staff
line

Thousands of paternity tests are carried out in the UK each year. According to experts, the figure may be as high as 10,000.

In 1998, the Department of Health published guidelines aimed at ensuring UK-based clinics work within a clear ethical framework.

However, the code is voluntary and there are growing fears that stronger measures are needed.


There is reason to think there are already cases in the paternity testing field where people have covertly tested

Prof Martin Richards, University of Cambridge
In its first major report, the Human Genetics Commission called for a change in the law. Its members want secret DNA testing to be made a criminal offence.

Unofficial estimates suggest that as many as one in 10 paternity tests are carried out on children covertly - that is, without the consent or knowledge of one or more parents and usually the mother.

Internet clinics

While few UK-based clinics offer such a service, there are concerns with the fact that it is offered by overseas firms over the Internet.

The commission's report, entitled Inside Information, states: "We are broadly happy with the regulation of UK paternity testing companies which abide by a government code of practice.

"But more and more people are making use of companies overseas which advertise on the Internet."

Its members believe a new law would go a long way towards preventing DNA testing and genetic information from being used in "malicious or deceitful ways".

Martin Richards, professor of family sciences at Cambridge University and a member of the commission, said the concerns were legitimate.

"The evidence, at the moment, is if covert testing occurs it is on a very limited scale but there is evidence that it may become more common."

He added: "In the UK, we have guidelines and as far as anyone knows they are adhered to.


While it may not stop covert tests it may force people to think twice before doing it

Dr Paul Debenham, LGC
"However, if you go onto the web it wouldn't take more than a few minutes to find sites that advertise the fact that they do not require consent to carry out DNA testing.

"I think there is reason to think there are already cases in the paternity testing field where people have covertly tested and sometimes with results that are very upsetting to those involved."

The problem lies in the fact that DNA results can be obtained easily.

While it is normal practice to carry out tests on a blood sample or mouth swab, results can be obtained from a single strand of hair or even by analysing saliva on a used coffee cup.

An Australian clinic which offers paternity testing to people living in the UK over the Internet says it can provide concrete results after being sent just one strand of hair.

A spokeswoman said demand for the service had been "quite high" since it was first offered to UK residents two years ago.

She added that the company encouraged potential customers to act openly and above board.

"We tend to veer them in that direction. We certainly do not suggest they should sneak around," she said.

Medical tests

However, Dr Paul Debenham, director of life sciences at UK-clinic LGC, said its customers were required to be tested by registered doctors.

He said the company would welcome a change in the law prohibiting secret testing. Dr Debenham suggested one in 10 callers to the company enquired about covert tests.

"We don't accept that case work at all," he said. "It would make life a lot easier if we could just refer to the legal framework."

LGC carries out paternity tests on behalf of the government's Child Support Agency. However, according to Dr Debenham a wide variety of people use its services.

He said: "There is a growing demand from a broad range of people, including those involved in inheritance issues, siblings trying to establish whether they have the same father, and people who have been adopted and are trying to identify their parents.

"There has also been tremendous growth in people wanting to know about their roots and there is, of course, an increasing importance of genetics in terms of medical traits and health."

Legal plans

Plans to outlaw covert testing would put the UK ahead of other countries. While governments in Europe and North America are considering similar moves, none has legislation in place.

"No country has a fully worked out system that is up and running," Prof Richards said. "This has to be a leap in the dark because no one has ever done it."

But he added: "All you can do is make it an offence and hope it will be a deterrent."

Dr Debenham said criminalising covert DNA testing could make a difference.

"It is impractical to see how the UK can monitor or police internet services. But it does mean that if you ever tried to present the results of a DNA test that was carried out covertly you would be admitting to a criminal offence.

"You would also not be able to use those results and would at the very least be doubling your costs. While it may not stop covert tests it may force people to think twice before doing it."

See also:

05 Dec 01 | England
DIY paternity tests sold online
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