How should we deal with misattributed paternity? A survey of lay public attitudes

Georgia Lowe, Jonathan Pugh, Guy Kahane, Louise Corben, Sharon Lewis, Martin Delatycki, Julian Savulescu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Increasing use of genetic technologies in clinical and research settings increases the potential for misattributed paternity to be identified. Yet existing guidance from the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Biomedical and Behavioral Research and the Institute of Medicine (among others) offers contradictory advice. Genetic health professionals are thus likely to vary in their practice when misattributed paternity is identified, and empirical investigation into the disclosure of misattributed paternity is scarce. Given the relevance of this ethical dilemma and its significance to users of genetic services, this study aimed to investigate the attitudes of lay people with regard to the disclosure of misattributed paternity. Methods: An online questionnaire was hosted and advertised through Amazon's Mechanical Turk to 200 United States residents aged 18 years or older. Respondents were asked to rate (via a Likert scale) the ethical permissibility of possible actions a clinician may carry out when misattributed paternity is identified. Data analysis consisted of preliminary descriptive analysis, chi-squared analysis, and Wilcoxon signed-rank tests. Results: There was no clear majority support for many of the options surveyed across different contexts, with only six out of ten scenarios displaying some general consensus. Men were more likely to support scenarios where the father is informed of paternity. Importantly, participants' views varied according to whether the desires of the father were previously expressed, suggesting that perceptions of the permissibility of a clinician's action will depend on the interests of all parties affected. Conclusions: This sample of the general public showed attitudes that were, at least to some degree, at variance with some professional guidelines. We give arguments for why at least some of these attitudes might be justified. We argue that case-specific judgments should be made and outline some of the relevant ethical considerations. While general guidelines ought to be considered, context-specific moral judgments cannot be avoided.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)234-242
Number of pages9
JournalAJOB Empirical Bioethics
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2017


  • ethics
  • genetics
  • misattributed paternity
  • practice guidelines as a topic
  • public perspective
  • questionnaire

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