DNA: Why the truth can hurt
The Sunday Times, Australia, By NADIA MIRAUDO, March 27, 2005
IT sounded too good to be true and it was.
The fairytale that saw Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott reunited with the son he thought he had given up for adoption 27 years ago, ABC sound-recordist Daniel O'Connor, ended this week when DNA tests confirmed another man had fathered Mr O'Connor.
The revelations were devastating for all involved, not least Mr O'Connor.
Still reeling from the emotional reunion with his mother, Kathy Donnelly, and Mr Abbott a few months ago, a simple test of truth has thrown the trio into disarray a situation familiar to thousands of other Australians.
Paternity testing in Australia is a burgeoning industry.
The simplicity of the test cells are collected from a mouth swab grossly underestimates the seriousness of the situation.
Of the 5000 tests conducted in Australia each year, a staggering 20 per cent of men endure up to 10 days of waiting and then find out they are not the biological father.
Ian Smith, director of service testing at Australia's largest DNA testing laboratory, Genetic Technologies, said it was important that people undergoing the test considered the consequences.
"DNA testing can have serious ramifications and we stress to people they should really consider counselling before they do the test because once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't put it back," he said.
Mr Smith said a growing awareness of DNA testing and its growing affordability had contributed to its surge in popularity.
He said that 10 years ago a test would cost $1000. Genetic Technologies charges $825 for a report that will stand up in court.
Most commonly, people sought testing when they were disputing child-support payments.
The saga surrounding Mr Abbott is the latest in a string of high-profile cases to highlight the issue of paternity.
Action film star Wesley Snipes last year sued New York City, saying it had no right to seek his DNA in a paternity suit, and Grammy-award winning singer Marc Anthony underwent DNA tests after a waitress falsely claimed he was the father of her son.
Italian man Manuel Musu and Australian policeman David Norman were also forced to face the issue when little Manny Musu lost her mother and almost her own life in the Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta on September 9 last year.
Last week, a Melbourne man who had been supporting two children he wrongly believed were his was stripped of a $70,000 compensation payout.
When DNA tests proved Liam Magill's suspicions that two of his three children were not his, he successfully sued his ex-wife for damages and economic loss.
But the Court of Appeal overturned that decision, prompting outrage from men's groups and calls that paternity deceit laws needed to be reformed.
Men's Confraternity convenor Mike Ward said the best way to avoid confusion was to introduce compulsory DNA tests at birth.
"The worst thing a woman can do to a man is make him believe he is the daddy of a child when he's not. What she is doing is deceiving the man and deceiving the child," he said.
"It's a situation that has been around since the dawn of time, and finally men have a way of finding out for sure if they are the father without accepting the word of the mother, and we believe men are entitled to that right."
In a 2003 report, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) recommended that testing should only occur with the consent of all parties.
Men's Confraternity president Brett Kessner said the recommendation was an attempt at "outlawing" paternity testing.
Mr Kessner said if a mother refused consent, the only option men had was to apply to the Family Court, which granted 6 per cent of applications.
"The Family Court will usually only grant consent for DNA tests if the baby has just been born, but if you have spent years establishing a relationship, they don't think it's in the best interest of the child to find out for sure," he said.
He said these men were then forced to continue to pay child support.
"In reality, the court is protecting dishonest mothers. How can that be in the best interest of a child?" he said.
"For medical and moral reasons, those doubts should be exposed."
One West Australian man who recently discovered through a DNA test that he wasn't the biological father of his nine-year-old son said the ALRC recommendation would prove disastrous.
The man, who didn't want to be named, said his suspicions were proved right when he underwent DNA testing earlier this year, without the consent of his ex-partner.
After paying child support since his son was six months old, and then struggling with his ex-partner who would deny contact for months and years at a time, he had had enough.
But he said despite his suspicions, the negative result had still been a shocking experience.
He said he loved his son, but despised his ex-partner. He was now applying to the Family Court to cease payments. But the man said that in the midst of child-support issues and the rights of fathers, his biggest concern was for his "son", who was yet to be told the truth.
Lone Fathers Association president Les Gray agreed, saying the welfare of the child should always be paramount.
Mr Gray, who runs a DNA-testing support group, said there were plenty of good reasons for a test to be conducted, particularly for peace of mind and hereditary health issues.
Mr Smith said it was also critical to remember that paternity testing did not always end in heartache.
"It also puts people together," he said. "It's not always bad news. Sometimes, it's exceptionally good news."
Isabel Andrews, co-ordinator of search and mediation agency Adoptions Jigsaw, said that in cases where there was doubt, she would always recommend paternity tests be conducted before a reunion because meeting long-lost family members was emotionally exhausting.
"Adoption searching is scary," she said. "People are frightened that they will be rejected, and so many don't start searching until they feel ready, mostly when they are in their 30s and have started their own family."
Ms Andrews said it was traumatic if one of the people involved didn't want to make contact.
"But whatever the reaction, the majority of people are pleased they searched because it's given them closure. It's much easier than laying in bed at night and wondering, `who do I look like?', `whose sense of humour have I inherited?' " she said.
Ms Andrews said answering these questions was fundamental to a person's sense of self.
"When you grow up in your birth family, you see aspects of yourself, endless tiny things that give you a sense of where you belong in the world," she said.
"Some people feel, especially if they are placed in a family that is very different in personality and talents to them, that it can feel a bit like they were plucked from Mars."
Department for Community Development manager of adoption service Colin Keogh said it was for this reason that WA had an open adoption policy.
He said that since 1995, relinquishing parents chose the adoptive parents, who would enter an agreement outlining how information would be passed between the families.
In most instances, there was a regular exchange of information.
"The whole principal behind open adoption and the reason why we want people to have access to that information, is because our whole identity is based on the information we have about ourselves," Mr Keogh said.