By Olusegun Adeniyi
Last Thursday, a Judge of the Delta State High Court released a press statement claiming that Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) tests conducted on the three children from his first marriage (to a woman from whom he is now divorced) reveal that he is not their biological father. In the statement, he offered details as to how he first received an anonymous message questioning the fatherhood of the youngest. When that information proved to be true, DNA tests were extended to the others. His current wife, he added, also had to endure the indignity of their four children being subjected to DNA tests to confirm their paternity. The Judge further explained that his decision to address the press on the matter was “to prevent damaging speculations, half-truths and outright lies from persons who may want to cash in on the tragedy that has befallen” his home while leaving his ex-wife “and her boyfriend or boyfriends to their conscience”.
As a husband and father, I find the development very troubling. Though DNA tests may have brought to light alleged infidelities and lies that have been concealed for more than two decades, the real damage in this saga is to those innocent children who are now young adults. By publicly disowning them, which is what he has done—regardless of whether or not he is still paying their school fees—the Judge has left these children with the ‘bastard’ stigma in a society where victims suffer consequences for the transgressions of others.
Whichever way one looks at it, this is a very serious social problem with implications for the health of our society. Reports exist that many men, especially those in estranged relationships, are seeking to know the paternity of their children. DNA tests have become almost as common as COVID-19 tests in our major cities. But ‘Who’zTheDaddy?’, a United States based company that offers a wide range of paternity test services, believes that a DNA paternity test is not something any man should rush into. “The questions of parenthood are inevitably emotional issues. Paternity issues can induce feelings of rejection, low self-esteem and identity confusion for the child in question”, the company wrote on its website. “It’s advisable to consider counseling before you decide whether a DNA paternity test is right for you and your family.”
A paper in the international ‘Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law’ contends that once a man has taken on that sacred role, there is no justification for initiating paternity testing, save in the interests of the child. The journal then deals with the all-important issue of who a ‘father’ really is, arguing that if all it takes is to drop a sperm, “a paternity test would be an appropriate test for fatherhood.” Being a father, the Journal concludes, “denotes much more than this.”
This issue is important for two reasons, both having to do with the welfare of the child/children involved. The first, as I explained, is the stigma that comes from being told by your father that you are not his child. It is a shattering experience that could trigger a wide range of emotions and reactions. The second issue is more complex. In many countries, family law recognizes non-biological definitions of fatherhood which include a man’s behavior, intent, stability in a preexisting parent-child relationship etc. “If anything, reproductive technologies like sperm donation and new family forms, like those born of the frequency of divorce, have only multiplied the scenarios in which biology may take a backseat to social criteria” wrote Nara Milanich, a Professor of History at Barnard College, United States.
In Nigeria, to be the biological father, even when irresponsible, creates a feeling of entitlement. In several cases, adult children cannot marry without the approval of these men, even when they made no contribution to their upbringing. But in a rare display of character, the daughter of a popular gospel musician last November said in an interview that the husband of her mother who raised her as his child and whose name she proudly bears is her true father. This despite knowing the circumstances surrounding her birth. She eulogized the man and dismissed the ‘sperm donor’ who likely considers her his ‘inheritance’ and has been making noise all over the place.
In her piece, ‘Being Blood-Related Doesn’t Make a Man a Dad’, Mrs Brie Gowen, who was nurtured by a man who married her mom after she was born and with whom she has no genetic relationship, wrote about her biological father: “He was unable, incapable, and unwilling to provide me the stability, guidance, and relationship that fatherhood entails. Put simply, he wasn’t meant to be a dad. He donated the sperm, but otherwise he felt his contribution to the whole scenario was complete.” Of the man she considers her true father, Gowen also wrote: “My Dad isn’t my birth father, and while he is so many things to my life, the one thing he is not is a genetic contributor to my conception. But ask me if that matters when I go to buy Father’s Day cards. Or rather yet, ask me if blood-typing was of any importance when I needed someone to kiss my scraped knee after I fell as a child. Ask me if DNA held any significance when I had my first broken heart and I needed a strong shoulder to cry on. It mattered not one single bit.”
Ordinarily, DNA tests are used in forensic criminal investigations in order to match suspect(s) with evidence collected from crime scenes. They also help to determine victims of mass disasters, (for instance, an earthquake or plane crash) and now also for immigration purposes. While every country has laws governing the use of DNA in paternity matters, Nigeria appears not to have any, leading to a gross abuse of this scientific method. In countries where DNA has become common, there are strict laws to protect the privacy and rights of the child whose paternity may be in question. But in Nigeria, this is an unregulated industry with many laboratories in Lagos and Abuja advertising the services for couples.
Since there is a dearth of legislation on DNA usage, the court bears a responsibility to protect the rights and privacy of citizens (young and old) who may be harassed with spurious claims. A classic example of the court’s evolution in this direction is the decision of the Court of Appeal in the matter between Mr Tony Anozia and Mrs Patricia Onwunwa Nnani (then 82) over the paternity of Ignatius Nnani, then a 57-year old man. Anozia, also in his eighties, had claimed that in 1957, he had a sexual encounter with Mrs Nnani who was then married (but whose husband was terminally ill).
With lurid details of how the sexual act was conceived and consumated, Anozia claimed that Ignatius was the product of that alleged unholy dalliance because the woman’s husband (who later died that same year, 1957) was too ill to engage in sexual act at the material time. He sought the help of the FCT High Court to compel a DNA test to prove his claim so that Ignatius could “change to the surname of his native father, Anozia Onowu of Umuosu Quarters of Oguta in accordance with native justice, equity and good conscience.”
In his brief to prove that the ‘away game’ he allegedly played in 1957 with a married woman indeed produced the man in question and that only a DNA test could resolve the riddle, Anozia stated: “Whereas one man can engage in sexual acts with a woman for years without the woman conceiving, five minutes of sexual engagement with another man may result in pregnancy.” While Mrs Nnani denied all his claims, declaring that her deceased husband is the father of her son and that a DNA test was unnecessary, Anozia countered: “What of a situation where a woman had sex with one man at 8pm and with another at 10pm. How is the paternity to be determined through hearing? It will be impossible. That is why DNA must be resorted to.”
In its judgement on 7th November 2012, the FCT High Court held that Anozia could not use the law to order two unwilling adults to submit to DNA test to “confirm or disprove his wish that a 57-year old man is his child, of an illicit amorous relationship!”
Justice Ita Mbaba of the Court of Appeal, while affirming the decision on 23rd January 2015, stated that “the law has always acknowledged the right of a woman to say who the father of her child is, and of course, where a child is born within wedlock, the presumption is conclusive, that the child is the seed or product of the marriage.” On the DNA being sought by Anozia, Justice Mbaba expressed a doubt “whether that form of proof can be ordered or is necessary to determine the paternity of a 57 years old man, who does not complain about his parenthood, just to please or indulge a self-acclaimed predator, who emerges to destabilize family bonds and poses as a biological father.” In his concurrence, Justice Ignatius Igwe Abube said he read “the facts of this case with utmost consternation and horror that in this 21st century, a gentleman of the bar can so unabashedly rake up such putrid, scandalous and ridiculous claim before a court of law.”
The conclusion from that case is simple: ‘Sperm does not a father make’. It is therefore worrisome that the Delta High Court Judge (or any man at all) would address a press conference to advertise a matter so private and personal without sober consideration of the consequences for the children involved. While the moral burden of the revelation remains with the ex-wife (whose side of the story we have not heard), the greater burden of social responsibility still rests on the Judge who has allowed anger, personal humiliation and a certain unforgiving vengeance to cloud his better judgment by making public DNA results that have put three young people in a quandary.
In the age in which we live, people must understand the limits of DNA, current trends in parenting and family dynamics as well as how nurture has literally supplanted nature. For instance, is DNA relevant in the case of an adopted child who is well brought up, well-educated and rise to become a global icon or major leader?
From what has transpired in this matter, our learned Judge may have succeeded in introducing irreparable complications to his relationship with those three children, not to mention their relationship with siblings from the current wife. My admonition: He should move swiftly to re-establish a true paternal relationship with them, beyond payment of school fees, which he wants us to acknowledge as an act of charity.
In the end, a child brings us comfort and is a product of our love and care. This is certainly more than biological. Besides, there are certain secrets which a man must live with and possibly carry to his grave for the sake of those for whom he may have a duty of care and the good of society.
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com