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The Knesset set in motion yesterday a revolution in Israeli family law when it gave initial passage to a bill that would allow the courts to order men to take paternity tests.

Family courts will be empowered to order paternity tests if they are convinced that "there is a reasonable chance that the petitioner's arguments are correct," according to the proposal. The alleged fathers will have the opportunity to state their case - but if they refuse an order to undergo the test, they can be fined or jailed for contempt of court, and the court is allowed to view the refusal as proof of paternity. Men can also initiate proceedings, requesting a paternity test to prove that they are not the father.

However, with few exceptions, the courts will only be allowed to approve the genetic tests if there is no suspicion that the child would be declared a mamzer - a bastard according to Jewish religious law. Children born to a married woman and a man who is not her husband fall into that category, and neither Jewish nor Israeli law allow the products of such a union to marry most other Jews. Religious courts will be allowed to make use of the information gained from a paternity test ordered by a family court, but cannot order such tests themselves.

Even if the law is passed, it will come 50 years too late, said MK Eitan Cabel, who heads the Labor Party Knesset faction, and who co-sponsored the bill together with MK Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima).

"It seems that there is no room for doubt that it is fitting and desirable for a court to be permitted to obligate the parties to undergo the medical or laboratory tests that are necessary and useful in discovering the truth in the matter of paternity," then Supreme Court justice Menachem Elon wrote in a ruling in the 1970s. Elon cited as his reason "the right of a minor child not to be kept all his life from knowing who his biological father is," and added that it was important such children receive the child support due them.

Yitzhaki said he believes that if passed, the law would lead to more than 1,000 court-ordered paternity tests a year. Such tests today are less invasive than they were in the past, requiring a sample of the man's saliva or hair, but not a blood sample.

Although the bill has passed its first hurdle, Cabel might face the same problems he did the last time he initiated similar legislation. Then, he was unable to push it through to the end of the legislative process.

Genetic testing in Israel is performed in most major public and government hospitals and in a few private laboratories. There is widespread use of genetic testing as part of prenatal diagnosis and genetic counselling services. It is also used as a (postnatal) diagnostic tool in HLA typing, infectious diseases, cancer and as a diagnostic aid for many specific diseases such as thalassemia, hemophilia, hypercholesterolemia, blood coagulation, etc. In addition, genetic testing is applied to paternity testing and to forensics.