It doesn't matter who provided the sperm

I find it hard to see the infamous 'Honey, the kids are black' debacle as presaging the collapse of civilisation

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It is appropriate – though tasteless – for this column to begin amidst the ammoniac scents of the gentlemens' loo at a service station, somewhere on the A12 round about lunchtime last Saturday. There stands a line of men at the urinals, each one holding his organ of generation and each one staring ahead, at a carefully placed laminated advertisement entitled: "Was it me, or was it him?"

It is appropriate – though tasteless – for this column to begin amidst the ammoniac scents of the gentlemens' loo at a service station, somewhere on the A12 round about lunchtime last Saturday. There stands a line of men at the urinals, each one holding his organ of generation and each one staring ahead, at a carefully placed laminated advertisement entitled: "Was it me, or was it him?"

The product that the poster is selling is something called "dadcheck", a DNA test that – for a sum of about 500 quid – can establish the paternity of a child. Shaking my head (for I have never seen anything like this before), I exit the toilet to continue my journey with my nine-year-old (who looks nothing like me) to visit the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo.

Dadcheck turns out to be the trading name of a Sunderland-based company called Complement Genomics Ltd. Its whole schtick, reminiscent of those legal ambulance-chasers that encourage clumsy people to sue local authorities, is that you have to know who your baby's dad really is. "Hey, it happens," says the dadcheck website (What happens? Babies?). "And you need to be sure, one way or another. Whatever the reason, if you have doubts about whether or not you have fathered a child, a dadcheck test is a good way to sort it out." With the mother's permission you can get a soft brush to run around the inside of the gobs of dubious child and self, and then whip the samples back, pronto, to dadcheck. Discretion guaranteed, but woe betide you if, after all that palaver, you do turn out to be the father.

I don't like this. What is it with everybody having to know everything? What about all those men who came back from the armed forces and the merchant navy after the Second World War to bring up an entire generation of kids who may not have been theirs genetically? Peace at last, they said, and here's a mum, here's a dad, here's a child, now let's get on with it. We should be grateful to them.

In the same way I find it hard to see the infamous "Honey, the kids are black" debacle as presaging the collapse of civilisation. Or even as a personal catastrophe. "This is a major disaster for six people," said one infertility expert, "the two couples and the babies." Well, yes, if a huge long court case results from all this and there is massive publicity and exposure of the family, as some newspapers want, then it may become very nasty. But is there anything about this which is intrinsically tragic? If the kids had been white, we would not even have known.

I understand that a woman in The Netherlands, one of whose IVF twins turned out to be black (the pipette containing her husband's sperm had not been properly washed out, apparently), described that her first reaction "was to feel that I had been raped". Hmmm. Of course, it isn't ideal; but they wanted babies, they got babies. The kids are there to be loved and brought up, so surely what matters is what they do next. And as for the American lawyer who described a baby carried in this way as a "stowaway", words fail me. No they don't, I'm a columnist. What a monstrous, cretinous, inhuman way of describing a child; he ought to be shot.

My instinctive reaction to this brouhaha is that it doesn't really matter who has precedence, the DNA family or the birth family (since they can now be different people). All you really need is lurve. Lurve defines the real parent.

In the Bible, of course, the two things are made, rather neatly to go together. In Kings book 1, chapter 3, Solomon sits in judgement over two harlots. One says that the other has rolled on her own baby overnight and smothered it, then exchanged the dead son for the living one. The other denies this, and says that the extant baby is hers. Thus they spake before the king. DNA tests being three millennia distant and God being disinclined to intervene, Solomon, of course, orders the baby to be cut in two and half given to each claimant.

"Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it." Solomon gives the babe to the true mother and all of Israel marvels at his wisdom (in fact, the true miracle is surely the stupidity of the false mother). And the assumption is that a natural mother is invariably more likely to have a child's best interests at heart than an adoptive one.

Most people believe this, so why do I find it so difficult? This week I realised that Bertolt Brecht was to blame. When I was very young – about eight – I was taken to see a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play that the communist playwright had written in 1944. I remembered that the drama featured a Solomonic moment in which two women – a rich governor's wife and a serving girl, Natella and Grusha – disputed the parentage of a small boy in front of Azdak the judge. But I'd assumed that the truth was that the boy really was the son of the proletarian.

Not a bit of it. On revisiting Brecht's play, I discovered that Natella was actually the boy's real mother, but had abandoned him when danger threatened her city. Grusha had looked after him and Grusha wanted to keep him. So, in the communist version of the biblical judgement, Azdak orders a chalk circle to be drawn and decrees that whichever woman can pull the boy out, she will keep him. And now it is the loving Grusha who cannot bear to hurt the child she loves, and it is Grusha who gets the baby. It is love that counts.

In some impossible future world, like the one depicted in Spielberg's Minority Report, we might be able to devise a parent test that will tell us not who has some kind of biological connection with a child, but who will turn out to be its best mentor, guardian and nurturer.

That is what I want to believe. And it seems more relevant now when, as we have seen, a baby can have two natural mothers. Whose bowels yearn here, the bearer of the baby, whose kicks she felt for months, or the DNA mother, whose genes are carried by the child? Wouldn't it just be better – since mistakes will happen – to leave the born babies where they lie?

And so it would be, were it not for the babies themselves. For, as my friend the analyst points out, people have an innate desire to know where they come from. The fatherless create stories and images of the dad they never met. This is why the adopted almost always want to know who their parents were, however loving the home they were brought up in. It's why we will have to concede the right to aid children to know who their sperm-donor fathers were. It's why there is actually no such thing as a one-parent family.

Even so, I worry about what we are going to tell some kids. The old phrase "You were an accident, darling!" becomes a dauntingly literal truth when dad turns out to be a badly cleaned test-tube.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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