The Influence of Mary Warnock

Philosopher and public intellectual Helen Mary Warnock died on 20 March 2019, at age 94 years. (See here and here.)

Baroness Warnock’s imprint marks not only public policy in the United Kingdom, but also the public policies of much of the western world, particularly in the arenas of assisted reproductive technologies and embryo research. She famously chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, 1982-84.

The Warnock Committee (as it came to be called) was formed to advise Parliament regarding, inter alia, in vitro fertilization (IVF) after the 1978 birth announcement of Louise Joy Brown, the world’s first “test-tube baby.” The committee chose to assign 14 days as the limitation for embryo research. That is, embryos could be used for research for up to 14 days post-fertilisation—not including freezer time for those that were cryopreserved.

Mary Warnock contributed the idea that a specific number of days, as opposed to a particular stage of the embryo, be used as a limit for legal purposes. She admitted that 14 was an arbitrary number, and explained the rationale to The Observer’s Robin McKie in December 2016:

“Before 14 days, it is absolutely certain – beyond any doubt whatsoever – that there are no beginnings of a spinal cord in an embryo,” says Warnock. “That means that whatever is done to the embryo during that period it cannot be feeling anything. And yes, it was a pragmatic decision. Everyone can count up to 14, after all.

“After this stage, however, development of the embryo becomes very rapid and it develops quickly towards becoming a foetus with a spinal cord and a central nervous system. So that is why we came up with that limit.” (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/04/embryo-research–leap-forward-step-too-far)

Parliament embraced the Warnock Committee’s recommendations including the use of embryos for research, and codified these into law, primarily The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990. The idea of a time-limited rule for embryo research spread. By 2016, ten other nations besides the U.K. had enshrined in law a 14-day limit: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, and Sweden. Uniquely, Switzerland restricts embryo research to seven days. Five nations maintain the “guideline” of 14-days: India, Japan, Mainland China, Singapore, and the United States. (https://www.nature.com/news/embryology-policy-revisit-the-14-day-rule-1.19838)

Mary Warnock’s influence impacted more than IVF and embryo research. Before she chaired the Committee that bears her name, Warnock served in a variety of posts. She was a member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority; then came a stint on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution; she chaired the Committee of Enquiry into Special Educational Needs; and she also presided over “a Home Office committee on the use of animals in laboratories” (Mary Warnock, A Memoir – People & Places (London: Duckbacks, 2002), 31-2).

Warnock did not back away from controversy. In 2008, she wrote “A Duty to Die?” for a Norwegian publication. She explained her views further in The Telegraph:

“I wrote it really suggesting that there’s nothing wrong with feeling you ought to do so for the sake of others as well as yourself.”

She went on: “If you’ve an advance directive, appointing someone else to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated, then I think there is a hope that your advocate may say that you would not wish to live in this condition so please try to help her die.

“I think that’s the way the future will go, putting it rather brutally, you’d be licensing people to put others down.”

(https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2983652/Baroness-Warnock-Dementia-sufferers-may-have-a-duty-to-die.html)

Mary Warnock was indeed a public intellectual. She applied her nimble mind to a wide variety of topics. Although her pen has stilled, her widespread influence continues. Her strongly-argued utilitarian positions of embryo usage and death advocacy necessitate able rebuttals for the defense of the most vulnerable among us.

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