One day in 1997, Michael Lammers received a surprise phone call. A woman with whom the ambulance attendant had once had an affair told him he was the father of her 12-year-old daughter. Like others in his situation, a stunned Lammers couldn't help but wonder whether the child was truly his. So he commissioned a private DNA test and, a few days later, knew for a fact that he was a dad.
While the decline of the two-parent family in Germany may worry traditionalists, it has proved a boon for a growing number of biotech companies specializing in paternity tests. "Since 1998 the number of orders has increased tenfold," boasts Kirsten Thelen, co-founder of Wiesbaden's ID Lab, which prepared 4,000 DNA fingerprints last year. Says Thelen: "The demand has existed for a long time, but now word has got around that there is an affordable way to obtain proof of parenthood."
A commercial DNA test is priced between �370 and �1,200, which sounds expensive until you consider the �2,000 it costs to obtain an official certificate of parentage. While the official certificate identifies paternity through a series of blood analyses, the commercial test, based on state-of-the-art genetic-research technology, establishes parentage by comparing the genetic profile of parent and child through the so-called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It takes would-or-would-not-be fathers only a phone call, an e-mail or a quick visit to the local pharmacy to get the kit containing test tubes and sterile cotton-wool sticks for swabbing the inside of a child's cheek. The subsequent analysis, done by the various DNA labs, takes three to 10 days.
Not surprisingly, the DNA labs receive the bulk of their work from men trying to prove or disprove paternity. Yet an increasing number of moms, most of them single, also make use of the tests. In about 10% of the cases, the biotech firms are consulted "by grown-up children who want to make sure who their parents really are," says Thelen. "In those instances the client's biography usually shows some unclear points."
Thelen thinks that some of the men who decide to carry out private paternity checks "are simply driven by the age-old male fear" that they may have been cuckolded by their partner a fear that could have been fanned by a friend's remark that the chip doesn't look as if it's off the old block. Indeed, British biologist Robin Baker analyzed the results of 16 paternity studies in 1996 and concluded that at least one in 10 children in the Western world was not sired by the man believed to be the father. The number of negative results reported by Germany's DNA labs an average of 20% to 25% supports Baker's thesis. Of course, many doubtful dads have the test done not out of curiosity but because of divorce and impending child-support payments. "Most of the time," says Henriette Tewes, managing director of the DNA lab Papacheck in Lauenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, "it's about money."
While more and more entrepreneurs are getting into the genetic paternity-testing business, their traditional competitors are raising doubts about the scientific quality of the work. "A DNA fingerprint that is based on a PCR examination alone is insufficient," argues Helmut Adamek, president of the official Association of Experts for Certificates of Parentage. Like legal opinions, he argues, the tests carried out by commercial labs should comprise a second procedure "to exclude analytic errors." Still, DNA fingerprints have an accuracy rate of 99.99%.
Privacy advocates are leery of the tests, since they are frequently performed without the knowledge of the second parent or the child. In fact, the DNA labs often get used toothbrushes or pacifiers from their customers instead of the normally requested mouth swabs. The majority of labs will also use these personal effects to extract DNA samples. Because he considers surreptitious genetic fingerprinting "a massive invasion of personal privacy," Joachim Jacob, Germany's Commissioner for Data Protection, is moving to ban DNA paternity tests. It's unfair that "the unauthorized opening of a letter is a criminal offense, while clandestine paternity tests are not," he says. "Just imagine a mother-in-law has a suspicion and endangers the whole family structure."
Gene labs deny the validity of such criticism. "Every man has the right to know whether he is the biological father of a child or not," says Victoria Koppenwallner, who owns a one-woman paternity-test company in Berlin, "without the expense of an official test." Men like Michael Lammers, who now has to pay a monthly maintenance allowance to a daughter who doesn't even want to see him, would agree.