Imani Tafari-Ama | Paternity testing is not a panacea
In one litter, my daughter’s cat had kittens from three different tom cats. One was extraordinarily fluffy, coloured white with tabby patches; one was shiny, sleek and jet black; and the third one was white with a single gray spot, and short, straight fur. When we did the research, we confirmed that through a process called superfecundation, cats can be impregnated by several “fathers”, resulting in this diversity of offspring. Of course, the same does not apply to humans. Only one lucky sperm gets to fertilise a woman’s egg in any one conception episode. So no matter how many men a woman has sex with, no two sperms can make that fateful egg connection.
The recent proposal made in the Jamaican Parliament by Heroy Clarke, member of parliament for St James Central, to introduce paternity tests at birth, was based on a study done by anthropologist Dr Herbert Gayle, which drew a direct connection between mushrooming domestic violence and men being fooled by women to support children they did not father. This has catalysed hot debates about the paternity problematic. Clarke proposed that paternity tests should be done at birth to ensure that men can immediately ascertain whether their child is a “jacket” or a “cut to fit”. It is a volatile initiative that should be mediated and managed. As history and experiences have shown, violence could be among the raft of responses that could meet the revelation that the babyfather had been cuckolded. However, paternity tests are not a panacea because there may be many other factors fuelling the violence.
Beyond biology, reproduction allows for interaction of spiritual, metaphysical, and material systems, which intertwine in the creation of life. While technological advances like artificial intelligence enhance the process, the producing offspring provides a template for the immanence of the Divine in every living thing. Through cultural reproduction, sexuality has also come to be intimately connected to our beliefs, identity complexes, social organisation patterns, and our interaction with material resources. The process is also heavily influenced by institutional regulations, including natural and structural law, politics, religion, and cultural mores.
The paternity debate encapsulates sensitive issues about power and possession. Every man wants to feel assured that their partner is faithful to them and that they can have confidence in claiming full paternity of their children. On the other hand, no woman wants to feel that her man does not trust her. She also does not want her man having children out of wedlock although bastardy laws took care of the stigma.
Infidelity usually causes huge rifts in a relationship. To restore trust if this happens is a monumental task. It is quite devastating for the man and his loved ones when the paternity betrayal is revealed. Stories abound of men being shocked to learn, years after the fact, that his child was actually fathered by another man. Remember that song Shame and scandal in the family?
The outrage is even more profound if the man had provided emotional, financial, and other forms of support for such a child. While biology is not destiny, many men do not want to find out that they are “minding” another man’s child. This reticence is really absurd, though, when one considers that foster and adoptive parents are also authentic mothers and fathers or social parents.
For many expecting parents, bearing DNA doubts is a natural progression from the onset of pregnancy. Other inevitable questions that arise include, will this child be normal? Will (s)he have ten fingers and ten toes? Will (s)he be brilliant and beautiful? Moreover, will this child be mine? The last conjecture is the one that only women can escape from asking and the only one that men cannot always answer in the affirmative.
DNA testing removes dependence on the woman’s word and some men’s fragile trust. But a man is never truly certain. He knows he will lose face and the woman could be mortally wounded if he discovers that he has been getting horn (as they say in the Eastern Caribbean). It cuts both ways. The epigenetic memories in our DNA fuel the anxiety. When children were born on plantations, they could not belong to their parents because colonial terrorists claimed them as property. This doubt still strains present-day relationships due to the enduring legacy of this trauma.
German political philosopher Frederich Engels published an article in 1884 titled “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” in which he tackled the paternity issue up front. Engels suggested that the family maintains social hierarchies by providing the institutional space for the transfer of private property from one generation to the next. The construction of the modern capitalist state intersected with men’s uncertainty about children’s paternity. Confining women to the private sphere of the household and relegating men’s work to the public arena was an intentional strategy to safeguard the sensitive space of paternity.
The notion of man as head of the household and main breadwinner is tied to this capitalist-driven arrangement. This is also reinforced by religious institutions. This patriarchal value system operates in both public and private spheres. Male domination is also a method of organising the labour-capital-surplus of profits sequence. It is also a mechanism for controlling women – their bodies, and all that goes along with this embodiment.
Engels emphasised that before the advent of capitalism, the notion of women as a part of men’s “belongings” did not exist. Children in pre-capitalist societies were regarded as beneficiaries of a collective community responsibility. However, the twinned notions of monogamy and private property redefined the family as nuclear, and women and children thereby were numbered among a man’s assets. The line is also drawn when demarcating boundaries of the female body as defined by the dictum, “girls, you can’t do what the guys do and still be a lady.”
Paternity tests, therefore, only address the tip of the iceberg. As a society, we have to come to terms with the historical, socio-economic, and political contradictions that are driving the violence. The epigenetics evidence suggests that DNA testing proves the persistence of the trauma. So with the help from science we have to Sankofa: go to the roots to explain the present problems in order to devise sustainable solutions.
- Dr Imani Tafari-Ama is a research fellow at The Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Regional Coordinating Office (IGDS-RCO), at The University of the West Indies. She is the author of ‘Blood, Bullets and Bodies: Sexual Politics Below Jamaica’s Poverty Line’ and ‘Up for Air: This Half Has Never Been Told’, a historical novel on the Tivoli Gardens incursion. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.