- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

DNA testing, until recently a somewhat exotic procedure associated with criminal trials, is now available for the rest of us. Paternity testing by analysis of DNA has become a commodity procedure, like ordering a book from Amazon.
Adultery tends to be chiefly associated with men, but of course women engage in it also. (You can find studies saying that half of married people cheat at some point. You can find studies saying otherwise. Take your pick.) Sometimes, pregnancy results. When the child is born, the husband usually assumes that the newcomer is his. In the past, there has been no easy and inconspicuous way for the husband to find out. Now there is: low-cost DNA testing by mail.
Search the Web on "DNA" and "paternity testing" and you will find an extensive list of DNA labs offering paternity testing for about $400. You can buy the service online using a credit card, mail DNA samples to the lab, and get the results in a couple of weeks. It's easy. And it seems to be popular. More than 250,000 paternity tests were done in 1998, for example, say the labs.
The technique used by the laboratory is called PCR, for polymerase chain reaction. This is a method that allows a small quantity of DNA to be repeatedly copied until there is enough to allow analysis. For example, a drop of blood, saliva or the like provide sufficient DNA. While not readily explained in a paragraph, PCR has been around for years and is scientifically accepted. The results hold up in court.
Depending on the lab, two types of testing tend to be offered. The first is sometimes called "peace of mind" testing. The husband is suspicious for whatever reason. (The child has three eyes and tentacles. He suspects a space alien, but isn't sure.) He quietly sends in DNA samples for analysis. If the results show that the child is his, he avoids an ugly confrontation with an innocent wife. She will not know that the test took place, which is probably a good thing for him. If the child isn't his, he at least knows the truth.
The other form of testing is technically the same, but administratively different. Peace-of-mind testing has no legal validity because courts require that the sample be taken by a disinterested third party and handled so as to avoid manipulation and contamination. The laboratories also offer testing for use in court. The laboratory procedure is the same, but the samples are collected according to strict legal rules.
I asked Kent Harman of Genetic Technologies (www.genetictechnologies.com) what proportion of tests produced "exclusions" i.e., showed that the supposed father in fact wasn't. He said the figure remained consistently close to 31 percent. This of course does not imply that any such proportion of children in the general population are the products of adultery. But it does indicate that those suspicious enough to order a test are often correct.
Wives suspicious of their husbands can use the same laboratories. Technically, it is easy to test stains on clothing to determine whether they were made by semen and to detect DNA from the woman involved. The suspicious wife sends the lab the stain and a reference sample of her own DNA, usually a "buccal swab," made by wiping the inside of the mouth with a cotton swab. Enough cells painlessly peel off to provide DNA. The lab determines whether the swab matches the stain. If not, hubby has a problem.
The Web sites explain how to prepare a DNA sample for mailing. The samples should be dry, as bacteria will destroy moist tissue. Use gloves to avoid contaminating the sample. If the sample is large (a pair of trousers or a dress, say) sterilize the scissors before cutting out the sample, so as to avoid adding someone else's DNA by mistake.
At least one site points out that privacy issues may be involved if the samples are taken when there is a legal expectation of privacy.
DNA testing these days has ramifications beyond marital disputes. For example, large inheritances can depend on who is daddy to whom. (My ignorance of civil law is nearly perfect, but the labs say such applications are not uncommon.) Another use of potential note is the determination of the identity of the driver in automobile accidents. If the saliva on the remains of the air bag contains John's DNA, the inference will likely be that John was driving.

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