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DNA testing as we know it has been around since the 1980s, when the development of PCR finally gave scientists an accurate, reliable way to test if two individuals were related. But it probably wasn't until the late 90s and early 2000s that the idea of a DNA test really entered the popular conversation, thanks to reality talk shows such as The Jeremy Kyle Show in the UK and The Jerry Springer Show in the States. Today, there are several commercial companies that can perform a paternity test and settle family disputes, using little more than a cheek swab taken from the child, and their alleged father.
But what happens if you need answers more urgently—before the baby has even been born? That's where a prenatal DNA test comes in.
The old way
Until recently, testing an unborn baby for paternity was a risky, invasive procedure. The test required a sample of amniotic fluid along with a tissue sample from the placenta—both would usually be collected by passing a needle through the abdominal wall and into the womb, and the procedure carried a small risk of miscarriage, and possible injury to the baby. As a result, a doctor wouldn't usually do the test unless there was an urgent medical need.
Fast-forward to today, and thanks to advancements in DNA technology, scientists are able to detect cell-free fetal DNA in a pregnant woman's bloodstream. In other words, traces of an unborn baby's DNA are present in the mother's blood. This means that a prenatal paternity test can be carried out using a simple blood sample (usually taken from the arm). This is a less-invasive method that carries no risk to the unborn baby.
The potential father provides a buccal swab, and the two DNA samples are compared back in the lab.
Accuracy and reliability
As with other types of DNA test, a prenatal DNA test can prove that two people are related with over 99.99 percent certainty. The test is accurate—but only if a viable sample can be obtained. If scientists can't get a good enough quality sample from the mother's blood, a repeat test can be carried out further into the pregnancy. The earliest a prenatal test can be done is at around eight weeks.
How to order a test
If you are thinking about getting a prenatal DNA test, it's imperative that you find an accredited, approved, and reputable company. In the UK, the government website has a list of recommended testing labs. If you are based in the USA, DNA Testing Choice is an independent site that reviews and recommends DNA testing companies.
Paternity testing is of course a sensitive subject, and you should consider the potential physical, emotional, and legal consequences of the result. Below is a list of useful websites that provide counseling, information, and support: