People are getting their kids DNA tested before they have even been born – here’s why

pregnancy

A new technique known as ‘non-invasive prenatal DNA testing’ is shaking-up the DNA industry.

Every year, thousands of people pay a private company to carry out a paternity test on their child – usually to confirm suspicions about an unfaithful partner, or as evidence to support a child support dispute. And it’s not just fathers that can be tested – give a lab a couple of cheek cell samples and they can test for fathers, mothers, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents or even identical twins!

But until recently, one particular kind of DNA test was usually out of the question – a prenatal test.

The old way of testing an unborn baby was and unpleasant, invasive an potentially dangerous process which involved putting large needles through the abdomen and into the womb. Due to the risk of complications, most doctors wouldn’t do it unless there was a pressing medical reason to do so. Simply wanting to know the identity of the baby’s father wouldn’t be adequate justification.

Cell-free DNA

Now fast-forward to the current decade. Scientists have discovered the presence of cell-free fetal DNA in the bloodstream of pregnant women. In other words, there are small traces of the baby’s DNA present in the mother’s blood.

In practice, this means that a prenatal DNA test can be carried out safely using a small blood sample from the mother. Taking a blood sample is a routine process – you’ve probably had one in the past. It’s safer for mother and baby, and there’s no additional risk of miscarriage or harm to the unborn child.

It comes at a cost

A standard paternity test – the kind where a child and the alleged father provide a cheek swab – can be ordered online for as little as £99 (or around $119 in the States). However due to the more complex science involved in a prenatal test, prices range from around £850 to over £1,000.

It’s worth it if you need answers urgently, but if not you might be better off waiting until after the birth (you can DNA test a brand new baby pretty much right after they have been born).

Early gender testing

Another new craze among expectant parents is baby gender testing. Scientists can extract the baby’s DNA from the mother’s blood sample and look for the presence (or absence) of a Y chromosome.

If you really can’t wait for your 16 week scan, a DNA gender test can be performed as early as 8 weeks after conception. It’s also highly accurate with less scope for human error (some experts estimate that 1 in 10 ultrasounds get the gender wrong). The price is also a little more palatable at around £200.

Advice & support

Getting a paternity test isn’t something to be taken lightly. Once the result is out there, it can have truly life-altering consequences for you, your relationship with your partner and the rest of your family.

You can find useful advice and information on the Citizen’s Advice website.

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