Academic journal article American Journal of Law & Medicine

DNA-Based Identity Testing and the Future of the Family: A Research Agenda

Academic journal article American Journal of Law & Medicine

DNA-Based Identity Testing and the Future of the Family: A Research Agenda

Article excerpt


Many of the societal challenges associated with the genetic revolution rest on predictions about the effects of the future development and diffusion of technologies for manipulating the human genome. Identity testing is different. Relatively sophisticated techniques for identity testing using DNA currently exist, and these techniques are already creating conflicts and challenges for families and policymakers. More precisely, scientific advances and social trends are raising difficult questions about the source and nature of parental obligation, the steps required to protect the privacy of individuals when suspicion begins to corrode family relationships and the role of attorneys and other professionals in these volatile situations.

The Article discusses the social context for the expansion of identity testing in Part II. Part III addresses the prevalence of misattributed paternity. Part IV explores historical and philosophical perspectives on parentage determination. Part V discusses the relationship between the new wave of identity testing and the law.

This Article concludes in Part VI by setting out a research agenda for assessing and addressing the ethical, legal and policy implications of DNA-based identity testing for the family. By "identity testing," we mean the use of technology to establish or rule out a relationship of genetic relatedness between at least two biological samples. The term would include testing to determine the degree of genetic relatedness between two or more persons (e.g., paternity testing) and testing to determine the identity of a person or the remains of a person. Over the next year, we will be working with Thomas H. Murray and Gregory Kaebnick of the Hastings Center, and a group of expert consultants in law, philosophy, the social sciences and social services to advance our understanding of and contribute to a coherent policy response to a range of problems triggered by genetic testing to determine identity.


In the last several decades, a number of social developments or trends have combined to expand the use of DNA-based identity testing and intensify conflict around applications of this technology within families and, more broadly, intimate relationships. Here we highlight four of these developments: the Human Genome Project (HGP), federal welfare policy, the fathers' rights movement and media interest in domestic drama.


The HGP has shaped the social impact of testing in at least three ways. First, the HGP has accelerated the development of techniques for cheap, efficient analysis of regions of DNA and comparison of the resulting genetic profiles. Emerging technologies, such as microarrays, are likely to lower cost, speed the process and increase accuracy.1 Even with existing technologies, analysis can be performed on DNA extracted from almost any biological material, with important implications for privacy. While testing at one time involved a blood draw, many laboratories that offer testing by mail now use cheek swabs. The testing of hair and other materials easily collected without the knowledge or cooperation of the subject is also becoming more common.

Second, the HGP has led to heightened concern about genetic identity as a factor in healthcare. If individuals lack accurate information concerning their ancestry, they may believe they are at a genetically increased risk for an inherited disorder when their risk is in fact no greater than the population-wide risk. On the other hand, other individuals may fail to take appropriate preventive measures because no presumptive parent has or is at risk for an inherited disorder. Diagnostic testing for many conditions produces ambiguous results, and testing of genetic relatives may provide information that is essential for good clinical decision making.2

Third, the emphasis on genetic identity and ancestry in the clinical setting has had consequences beyond the clinic. …

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