Tuesday, March 04, 2008

How Did DNA Testing Children Begin?

Author: Avi Lasarow

The story behind the first maternity and

paternity tests used for legal purposes.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable discovery which forever changed the legal profession. In 1985, Alec Jeffreys (now Sir Alec), a young genetics professor at Leicester University, discovered DNA fingerprinting—the technique which allows for unambiguous human identification as well as relationship identification between different people. Since then, DNA testing has emerged as a powerful tool in both civil and criminal justice systems. DNA testing can not only reveal whether two or more individuals are related but can also determine the nature of this relationship. Today, it is possible to identify people by a single hair, as well as obtain information about their gender, ethnic background, and nearly their exact age.

In non-criminal legal practice, DNA testing is used primarily for immigration and child support cases. In 2004, more than 7,000 DNA tests were conducted in the UK for these purposes. When no reliable documentary evidence is available, DNA testing can assist in determining varying degrees of relatedness between individuals, as well as their ethnic background.

The landmark immigration case Sarbah vs. Home Office (1985) was the first to use DNA testing to prove a mother-son relationship between Christiana Sarbah and her son Andrew.

The case started in 1983 when Andrew, then 13, arrived in England after a long stay in Ghana with Christiana's estranged husband. Immigration officials held him at Heathrow Airport, claiming his passport was forged, or that a substitution had been made. Only after intervention by a local MP was Andrew allowed to stay at his family's home in London.

Various genetic-determining tests showed that Christiana and Andrew were almost certainly related; however, it was impossible to determine whether Christiana was his mother or merely an aunt (Christiana has several sisters in Ghana). The photographic evidence and depositions were rejected at an immigration hearing, but deportation was delayed pending an appeal.

Around the same time, an article in The Guardian reported the discovery of DNA fingerprinting by Prof. Alec Jeffreys and his team at the University of Leicester. After reading about their work, the legal team dealing with the case approached Prof. Jeffreys, and he agreed to take on the case. In order to prove that Christiana was Andrew's mother, a DNA test was performed on blood samples from Christiana, Andrew, an unrelated individual, and Christiana's three undisputed children: David, Joyce, and Diana.

Using a recently discovered DNA probe, a DNA fingerprint was produced which confirmed that Christiana was indeed Andrew's biological mother, and that David, Joyce and Diana were his siblings. Based on this evidence, the case was dropped by the Home Office and massive press coverage ensued. The discovery of DNA fingerprinting had huge implication for the non-criminal legal system and led to an overhaul of the UK's Immigration legislation. Current UK immigration legislation accepts results of DNA testing as the ultimate proof or relationship between a child and his or her relatives. Accordingly, DNA test results will normally (although not invariably) provide conclusive evidence as to whether a child is related, as claimed, to one or both of his alleged parents.

Before January 1991, it was up to the applicant to decide whether or not to obtain DNA evidence in support of his or her application or appeal. In January 1991, a government scheme was introduced, which enables entry clearance officers (ECO) to offer to arrange DNA tests in cases where they are not satisfied that persons seeking admission as children are related to their UK sponsor.

For more information, please visit DNA Bioscience, at www.dna-bioscience.co.uk

About the author: Avi was awarded the prestigious Shell Live Wire Entrepreneur of the Year award for his business. Working closely with the charities and various media outlets Avi strives to increase public awareness as to the benefits of DNA and the continuing impact that technological advances will have on all our lives.

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