By AMMU KANNAMPILLY
The illegal use of DNA testing to determine the sex of fetuses in the developing world is widely known, but now, concern is growing in the United Kingdom that the availability of prenatal paternity tests is encouraging women to terminate fetuses that are the result of extramarital affairs.
According to Dan Leigh, the marketing director with DNA Solutions, a global DNA test firm with offices in 40 countries, the number of women opting for the prenatal paternity test shot up from 20 in 2002 to 500 last year.
"The testing technology has improved vastly," Leigh told ABC News. "It's become much more accessible."
"It's fairly common to see women take this test after their husbands have found out about an affair and want to know if they have fathered the child their wife is carrying," Leigh said.
"But 75 percent of the cases involve women coming in of their own volition; they want to know whose child they are carrying," he said.
As for the concerns over women terminating their pregnancies as a result of the tests, Leigh demurred, saying that "there are no statistics to support that, but it [abortion] happens when the husband turns out not to be the biological father."
"It's a sad situation," he said. "It often ends either in divorce or the husband insists on terminating the pregnancy."
The company encourages women who apply to take the prenatal paternity test to also see a therapist. But, although 90 percent of the company's U.S. customers consult with a therapist, only 20 percent of its U.K. clients do, because "the idea of seeing a counselor is just not popular in this country," Leigh said.
And, despite criticism from anti-abortion rights organizations, Leigh insisted that DNA Solutions does "not encourage abortion or termination of pregnancies."
"We are offering the chance to clarify the truth," he said.
"Frankly," he said, "the risk to a baby from an amniocentesis is a much bigger concern for us, and we are working on being able to conduct the test using a blood sample from the mother's arm instead, find a noninvasive way of doing it."
Anti-abortion rights campaigners like Josephine Quintavalle, director of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, dismiss such concerns, saying that, "unless you are conducting a test to help a baby -- for health reasons, say -- there is no significant reason to carry out any procedure that might hurt a baby."
"I don't think we should condone any form of testing that might lead to either sex selection or termination of the fetus," she said.
But the boom in prenatal paternity testing may be a mirage, according to other DNA testing organizations.
Mark Pursglove, the international operations manager for the U.K.-based International Biosciences, said that his company performed "about one or two tests a month" and that the paternity tests were not necessarily tied to adultery.
"Last year," he said, "two of the cases we dealt with involved rape victims who wanted to find out if they were carrying the rapist's babies."
The supposed popularity of these tests has been overstated, he said.
"The process costs between £800-£900 [$1,133-$1,274]," he said. In contrast, DNA Solutions offers tests beginning at $332.
Pursglove said that "the clinics we use for the test won't take up a case if they believe that a termination might be the result."
Furthermore, all clients must "speak to a gynecologist, an obstetrician or a general practitioner before the test is carried out."
Although the company forbids any "gender inquiries about the fetus," unless the person or couple involved explicitly discusses the possibility of termination, the company goes ahead with the test, Pursglove said.
But the expectation of total honesty from a woman caught in such a sensitive situation may just be too high, according to some.
And many anti-abortion rights campaigners believe the chances are slim that anyone would undergo a risky test costing hundreds of dollars without any intention to terminate the pregnancy in case the test turns up a disturbing result.
As this testing technology becomes more sophisticated and more accessible, however, it's likely that paternity tests will only become more commonplace, even as the battle to hammer out an ethical stance on the matter shows no signs of letting up.