Blood Will Sell

The paternity testing industry is big business, but what it markets is a pernicious sense of doubt.

It’s Father’s Day again: time for the annual ritual of questionable neckties, George Foreman grills, and special discounts on home paternity tests. For most Americans, paternity testing probably conjures up celebrity scandal and daytime television. DNA testing not only makes for good ratings, however: it’s also big business. But what exactly is the biotech industry selling? While it purports to offer certainty about family relationships and personal identity, in fact what it markets is the opposite: a toxic sense of doubt. This pernicious idea pervades popular culture and even threatens to shape legislation.

In 2010, the American Association of Blood Banks, which accredits DNA laboratories, reported more than 380,000 paternity tests in the United States — which is actually a fraction of the total, since only 60 percent of accredited labs reported data. According to industry reports, DNA testing is projected to generate $3.9 billion in revenues by 2019.

There are two kinds of paternity tests. The first is the legal forensic test, ordered by courts for child support and custody cases. And then there is so-called discretionary testing with no medical or legal rationale. These are the home test kits advertised on billboards and the Internet and sold in your local pharmacy. They’re what the websites delicately refer to as “peace of mind” testing.

But peace of mind doesn’t come for free. While the price of home paternity tests has dropped dramatically in recent years thanks to improvements in technology, the cost still exceeds one hundred dollars. Discretionary testing today accounts for about 38 percent of total revenues and in recent years has driven the DNA industry’s rapid growth. As new labs crowd the market, profitability hinges on increasing consumer demand.

Who buys paternity tests? Presumably the only people who need one are those uncertain about the result. The precondition of a healthy paternity industry, in other words, is an abundance of uncertainty.

Little wonder, then, that companies traffic in doubt. “Discover your truth,” beckons one site. “Don’t let uncertainty tear you apart,” urges another. Companies cite a widely circulated — and thoroughly debunked — statistic that as many as 30 percent of people don’t know their biological father’s identity (the actual number, according to multiple studies, is in the low single digits). They warn consumers that thousands of men are unknowingly paying support for other men’s children. Identigene, which pioneered direct to consumer marketing of DNA tests, campaigns to raise awareness of paternity fraud.

In this context, daytime television is a giant product placement opportunity. Big DNA companies form partnerships with experts who double as media personalities. Ohio-based DNA Diagnostics Center touts its credentials as paternity tester to the stars. Its media portfolio, featured on its website, includes Maury Povich and twenty other television shows. On “Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court,” the judge dramatically pulls the DNA results from an envelope emblazoned with the company logo. It is not by chance that the paternity reveal first became a talk show plotline just as the DNA industry began aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing in the late 1990s.

The paternity industry markets a deeply corrosive doubt about the honesty of all women and the origin of all children.

Most company websites, in contrast, eschew celebrity and sensationalism for a staid and serious tone. Sunny platitudes normalize genetic testing. It’s quick and easy. It’s accurate and affordable. And the benefits! Paternity testing produces “strong and happy” families with “emotionally-expressive children” who exhibit “improved cognitive abilities.” The trite marketing copy can border on the absurd. One DNA Diagnostics press release chirps: “Father’s Day can take on a whole new meaning when you’re finding out if you’re really a child’s biological father.” (Are you still contemplating that George Foreman grill?)

Yet neither sensationalism nor platitudes should mask the deeply corrosive doubt that is the industry’s bread and butter. The high-minded quest for truth frequently taps a deep vein of misogyny. Decrying the epidemic of “paternity rape,” men’s rights groups call for expanded DNA tests. And if all women are suspect, some are especially so. Paternity shows play on crude stereotypes of poor, young, and disproportionately nonwhite “baby mamas.”

It was only a matter of time before this “social problem” demanded a policy solution. Sure enough, in recent years legislators in Tennessee, Kansas, and New Jersey have introduced bills to make DNA testing obligatory for all newborns. “I’ve heard different stories about [duped] fathers who are raising children and paying child support,” observed one bill’s sponsor by way of explanation. One can guess where he heard those stories.

To be sure, the DNA industry did not invent doubt. Cuckoldry, sexual jealousy, and the ineffable mysteries of identity are tropes at least as old as the Greek myths. They recur in literature from Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy. Nineteenth-century social theorists posited uncertain paternity as a primordial foundation of human society. More recently, sociobiology and even some strains of feminist thought have suggested that the origins of patriarchy lie in the fact that men can never be certain of their biological offspring.

DNA testing was supposed to solve all that. Yet instead of eradicating doubt, the testing industry has commercialized it. It sells us the idea that without a genetic test, the honesty of all women, and the origin of all children, is inherently in doubt. The result is that in the age of DNA, paternity is as uncertain as ever.

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