Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Royal Paternity Tested in the Modern Age

A royal paternity test in Belgium has far-reaching implications for fertility clinics.

Even when they are centuries old, royal paternity disputes are fascinating. DNA studies of the recently discovered bones of Richard III suggest that the entire Plantagenet dynasty may have been illegitimate.

During the 19th century hundreds of imposters claimed to be the Dauphin of France, the son of Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette who had allegedly escaped from his Republican captors. A DNA test in 2000 proved that this was false: he had died in captivity as a child.

Similar rumours circulated about Grand Duchess Anastasia, the 17-year-old daughter of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. She was said to have survived a Bolshevik firing squad, and at least ten women claimed her identity. The most famous of them was finally disproved by a DNA test long after her death.

More recently the former Spanish king, Juan Carlos, fought off two paternity cases.

The latest scandal could alter long-standing legal doctrines and change the line of succession to the throne of the Kingdom of Belgium. Here is what has happened: a court in Brussels has granted a London-based Belgian artist the right to seek legal recognition of her long-standing claim that the former King, Albert II, is her real father.

Delphine Boël is the 47-year-old daughter of Baroness Sybille de Selys Longchamps, who gave birth to her when she was married to Jacques Boël, a billionaire Belgian industrialist. It appears that the Baroness had an affair with Albert before he became king, and that Delphine was their offspring.

In Belgium, men cannot be forced to take a paternity test and Albert has declined. However, Jacques Boël did have one and it proved that Delphine is not his daughter. Under Belgian law, his legal status as the father has to be revoked before another man’s can be proven. But this is not legally possible under current legislation. Such a request needs to be initiated before a child turns 22 or within a year of learning that a parent is not a biological parent. All these deadlines lapsed long ago for Delphine Boël.

Has Australasian Science become a glossy gossip mag or is there a bioethical point to this? There is, actually. Belgium’s constitutional court ruled in favour of Delphine. It declared that a child’s right to know his or her origins is more important than respecting existing family ties.

This could have far-reaching implications for fertility clinics. At the moment, the identity of Belgium’s sperm donors is kept secret and children have no right to access information about their biological fathers.

This landmark case also acknowledges that the heartache of not knowing a father can be psychologically damaging. Until now, Belgian law supported the notion that socially constructed relationships are more important than genetic ties.

This is an essential justification for the fertility industry, which contends that as long as children are raised in a loving environment it does not matter whether or not they know their biological parents. The court now says, however, that genetic truth is more important than settled legal status. The key sentences read:

Even if a person were able to develop his personality without having certainty about the identity of his biological father, it must be admitted that the interest an individual can have to know his ancestry does not decrease with age, on the contrary...

In legal proceedings to establish parentage, the right of everyone to the establishment of parentage must therefore prevail in principle over the interest of family harmony and the legal security of family ties.

With this decision, Delphine Boël has only won the right to formally contest the paternity of Jacques Boël. Afterwards she will ask to have Albert II recognised as her father. Her lawyers still have plenty of work to do.

What explains Delphine’s insistence? Not money. She is independently wealthy. Not royal connections. She would become 15th in line to the throne, with as much chance of wearing a crown as you and I.

The answer lies in her quirky sculptures. Her portfolio is obsessively, scarily, focused on finding her true self by finding her biological father, with titles like “I, Question”, “Delphine LOVE CHILD”, “Identity is Golden” and “Fuck You I Exist”. Her uncertainty about her genetic heritage has left deep scars.

Why is she so insistent? To know who she is, that’s why. For those who don’t know, no question is more painful.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, a bioethics newsletter.