Misattributed paternity is the situation when a child’s putative father is not the child's biological father. Overall, the incidence of misattributed paternity ranges from about 1% to 2%, though it may be considerably higher in certain populations. Genetic testing for purposes other than establishing paternity has the potential to unintentionally yield information regarding a child’s paternity. This generally occurs in two different scenarios: the first occurs in searches for a suitable bone marrow or organ donor where the patient’s family members are tested; the second is in the course of a genetic-risk assessment for reproductive purposes.
Misattributed paternity is also referred to as false paternity, illegitimacy, non-paternity or paternity fraud, though the latter term suggests that the misattribution was deliberate rather than accidental.
The table shows measurements of unsuspected non-paternity rates published since 1957. Early paternity tests were based on informative blood protein variants (blood markers), and since the 1990s, DNA testing has become the standard method. Y chromosome/surname comparisons provide historical non-paternity rates averaged across the entire surname period (circa AD 1300 to the present, for most English family names).
|Country||Population||Sample Size||non-paternity percentage||Method||Bias||Reference|
|UK||southern English families||2578||3.7||Blood and other markers||not known||Edwards 1957|
|USA||Undisputed paternity tests||67||18.0||Blood and other markers||not known||Sussman and Schatkin 1957|
|USA||Michigan white sample||1417||1.4||Blood and other markers||not known||Schacht and Gershowitz 1963|
|USA||Michigan black sample||523||10.1||Blood and other markers||not known||Schacht and Gershowitz 1963|
|USA||Californian white sample||6960||2.7||Blood and other markers||not known||Peritz and Rus 1972|
|South America||Yanomama tribe||132||9.0||Blood and other markers||not known||Neel and Weiss 1975|
|USA||Hawaiian families||2839||2.3||Blood and other markers||non-participation in sample (−)||Ashton 1980|
|New Zealand||Tokelau families (Polynesians)||1983||4.0||Blood and other markers||not known||Lathrop et al 1983|
|Mexico||Families with newborns||217||2.9||Blood and other markers||not known||Peñaloza 1986|
|UK||Cystic fibrosis screening||521||1.4||DNA testing||non-participation in sample (−)||Brock and Shrimpton 1991|
|France||Genetic screening (various)||362||2.8||DNA testing||non-participation in sample (−)||Le Roux et al 1992|
|Canada||Haemophilia B screening||25||4.0||DNA testing||non-participation in sample (−)||Poon et al 1993|
|Switzerland||Cystic fibrosis/bone marrow screening||1607||0.8||Mixed methods||non-participation in sample (−)||Sasse et al 1994|
|Mexico||Nuevo Leon newborns||396||11.8||Blood and other markers||not known||Cerda-Flores et al 1999|
|UK||Multiple sclerosis screening||744||1.6||DNA testing||non-participation in sample (−)||Chataway et al 1999|
|UK||Y vs surname comparison (Sykes genealogy)||48||1.3||DNA testing||single founder assumed (+)||Sykes and Irven 2000|
|UK||Y vs surname comparison (Attenborough genealogy)||1||1.29–3.39||DNA testing||single founder assumed (+)||King and Jobling 2009|
|UK||Y vs surname comparison (Haythornthwaite genealogy)||1||2.07–4.54||DNA testing||single founder assumed (+)||King and Jobling 2009|
|UK||Y vs surname comparison (Herrick genealogy)||1||1.00–2.47||DNA testing||single founder assumed (+)||King and Jobling 2009|
|UK||Y vs surname comparison (Stribling genealogy)||1||1.00–2.87||DNA testing||single founder assumed (+)||King and Jobling 2009|
|UK||Y vs surname comparison (Swindlehurst genealogy)||1||1.04–2.76||DNA testing||single founder assumed (+)||King and Jobling 2009|
|Iraq||immigration testing (Kurds)||<24097||1.6||DNA testing||not known||Forster et al 2015|
|Nigeria||immigration testing||<24097||8.3||DNA testing||not known||Forster et al 2015|
The rate of non-paternity is commonly quoted to be much higher, around 10% or even more. Sociologist Michael Gilding has concluded that such high estimates circulated by the media, the paternity testing industry, fathers' rights activists and evolutionary psychologists are inflated. He traces many of these estimates back to a 1972 conference discussion:
- “We blood-tested some patients in a town in south-east England,” Dr Elliot Philipp told the symposium, “and found that 30 per cent of the husbands could not have been the fathers of their children...” At this point Dr Philipp was interrupted by a judge, who observed that “surely the figure of 30 per cent must be a minimum?” The judge clearly understood that while blood tests could definitively exclude paternity, they could not definitively establish it. This is why experts in paternity testing generally speak of an “exclusion rate” rather than a “non-paternity rate” or “misattributed paternity rate.” Dr Philipp agreed that the figure was “a minimum.” He then explained how he came to be doing the tests. His team was “screening some female patients by testing their husbands for their blood groups” as part of a study about the formation of antibodies. The results surprisingly showed that “30 per cent of the children could not have been fathered by the men whose blood group we analysed.” Another participant asked about the number of people who were tested. Dr Philipp replied, “Not large – between 200 and 300 women – but large enough to give us a real shock.”
Gilding concluded that Dr Philipp's high figure of 30% was more in keeping with the inevitably high incidence of non-paternity in cases where disputed parentage was the reason for the paternity testing. In such cases, other sources have consistently recorded an incidence of 17% to 33% (median of 26.9%), especially among offspring born to younger parents and to unmarried couples, and among those of lower socio-economic status or from certain cultural groups.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (November 2012)|
In the context of a genetic-risk assessment for reproductive purposes a finding of misattributed paternity is more problematic, both ethically and legally. For example, a couple approaches a genetic counselor after the birth of a child with an autosomal recessive disorder (such as Tay Sachs) and both parents must be carriers of the trait. The test reveals that the father is not a carrier, and is therefore not the biological father (unless the disorder was caused by a mutation, a negligible risk). Instead of future children having a 25% chance of being affected, the chance is close to zero. There are issues with the genetic counselor withholding the information, disclosing the misattributed-paternity finding, partially disclosing the information, or addressing the issue before testing as part of the informed consent process.
There is no consensus on a single, appropriate approach a genetic counselor should take with respect to misattributed paternity, and there are proponents for each. A 1983 report of the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research recommended that genetic counselors employ full disclosure. By contrast, in 1994 the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Assessing Genetic Risks recommended that the counselor disclose the information only to the mother. The Hereditary Disease Programme of the World Health Organization declared that there is probably never a situation in which the information should be disclosed to the putative father.
Surveys of genetic counselors indicate that an overwhelming majority (96–98.5 percent) would not divulge misattributed paternity results to the presumed father; sixty percent would include information about misattributed paternity on an informed-consent document. Therefore, genetic-counseling custom appears to support telling the mother alone, or withholding misattributed paternity from both parties. Courts often consider custom as evidence of what a reasonable physician would do in similar circumstances (the standard for medical malpractice).
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- Sussman LN, Schatkin SB (1957) "Blood-grouping tests in undisputed paternity proceedings". JAMA 164:249–250
- Schacht LE, Gershowitz H (1963) "Frequency of extra-marital children as determined by blood groups". In: Gedda L, ed. Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Human Genetics. Rome, published by G Mendel, pp. 894–897
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- Le Roux M, Pascal O, Andre M, et al. (1992) "Non-paternity and genetic counselling". Lancet 340:607
- Poon M, Anand S, Fraser BM, et al. (1993) "Hemophilia B carrier determination based on family-specific mutation detection by DNA single-strand conformation analysis". J Lab Clin Med 122:55–63
- Sasse G, Müller H, Chakraborty R, et al. (1994) "Estimating the frequency of nonpaternity in Switzerland". Hum Hered 44:337–43
- Cerda-Flores RM, Barton SA, Marty-Gonzalez LF, et al. (1999) "Estimation of nonpaternity in the Mexican population of Nuevo Leon: a validation study with blood group markers". Am J Phys Anthropol 109:281–293
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- Forster P, Hohoff C, Dunkelmann B, Schürenkamp M, Pfeiffer H, Neuhuber F, Brinkmann B. (2015) "Elevated germline mutation rate in teenage fathers". Proc Biol Sci 282:20142898
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- President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Screening and Counseling for Genetic Conditions: A Report on the Ethical, Social, and Legal Implications of Genetic Screening, Counseling, and Education Programs. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office [GPO] (1983).