- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2000

PHILADELPHIA "Who's the father?" asks a billboard hoisted above Interstate 76 in the City of Brotherly Love, where Republicans are holding their national convention this week.

Just two miles from the convention center, the billboard is nestled among "Welcome GOP" ads, a klatch of billboards for Fox TV, CNN, C-SPAN, Comedy Central, lawyers4lemons.com, Earthlink, taxmeat.com, philly2nite.com, Wawa BLT hoagies and Guinness Stout.

What it advertises is a company, Identigene Inc. of Houston that specializes in resolving paternity matters through DNA testing. Identigene gets 25 to 30 calls a day from women unsure who fathered their child or from men who wonder if they have offspring.

It includes a toll-free 800/DNA-TYPE number and a Web site (www.identigene.com). An all-black background shows red and blue sperm swimming about.

"Philadelphia is a good market," Identigene President Caroline Caskey says. As for her billboard's locale, "I think we got lucky," as buyers cannot specify a board's placement.

"We get hundreds of calls a day," she says of the 70 to 80 billboards her company has posted around the country. Philadelphia has two of them. In some cities, the company has a slightly different billboard: a black background featuring the image of a white tail attached to a thumbprint and the same question: "Who's the father?"

"Ten percent of the population has paternity issues," Miss Caskey says. "It's a staggering rate in urban communities where unwed motherhood is well over 50 percent."

DNA tests, she said, are usually done with saliva samples or swabs of cells from inside the cheek of the father and child. Her company sends all the necessary paraphernalia in a collection kit to people who pay the $475 fee after calling the toll-free number or logging onto the identigene.com Web site.

"There's a great deal more social willingness to admit we need these tests to get the issues resolved," she says. "The issue of who slept with who is currently not modern."

What is modern are paternity lawsuits, visitation rights and child-support payments.

DNA testing, a science of the 1990s, can be taken from blood, as well as saliva or semen samples, and has been used from everything from catching murderers and rapists to figuring out identities of babies switched in maternity wards. This year, Texas Gov. George W. Bush advocated DNA testing to "erase any doubts" from some death-penalty cases.

The American Association of Blood Banks has accredited almost 50 labs offering paternity testing, according to Scripps Howard News Service. An estimated 250,000 paternity tests will be performed this year in the United States.

DNA testing has led to some interesting conundrums, such as what happens when a test reveals to a suspicious father that the children he thought were his actually are not?

The fledgling DNA industry has left many children as victims after men who they thought were their fathers turned out not to be. Since roughly 30 percent of men who take the tests discover they are not the fathers of their supposed children, many of these men refuse to help their wives or girlfriends with child-rearing expenses.

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