The Influence of Mary Warnock

D. Joy Riley, M.D., M.A.

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.” (–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. (

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.”


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.

Animal Rights – A Sidenote

The recent blog by Dr. Steve Phillips led me to deeper thought (and this excursus) on the idea of moral status and moral agency. While his comments reflected on the significance that blurring the two concepts has had on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, it also has important implications for the idea of animal rights. Dr. Phillips addresses the writings of Mary Anne Warren, whose Moral Status- Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things, dedicated many words to animals.

Warren, a professor at San Francisco State University until her death in 2010, was a champion of the abortion rights cause. But she was also deeply influenced by Peter Singer’s views on animal liberation. She managed to avoid the inevitable outcome that Singer’s views would necessitate, specifically abolitionism of all animal confinement and human use. She has written of a “sliding scale” concept of animal rights that “…depends in part upon their sentience and mental sophistication.” In other words, she seems to use the ability of animals as moral agents to determine their moral status. While it is arguable that even higher non-human primates could be capable of moral agency, the level of mental sophistication of non-human animals seems, intuitively, like a reasonable way to address their level of welfare. I may be entirely unenthusiastic if my son chooses to go deer hunting but fine with a fishing trip. Others might find my distinctions illogical based on their own views, and that is okay. There is an inherent subjectivity to the moral status of animals, because they are, at least in Christian thought, not created in the same fashion as human beings. I daresay that this is a pretty palatable view of animal welfare and is what most people think, without really thinking, when approached with the idea of animal rights. I have, in fact, based the moral status of animals on their capacities, an altogether reasonable thing in the world of animals, while I cannot logically consider them moral agents, which Warren would seem to do. This is where her failure to differentiate the concepts muddies things.

If I lack the biblical distinction of the imago Dei (image of God) that distinguishes humans from non-human animals, don’t differentiate moral agency from moral status, and want to be consistent in the idea of animals as having variable levels of moral status, then I am forced to look at capacity as the basis for this status for everyone. This is the insidious nature of granting rights to animals, even “lesser rights,” however those can be quantified. Absent the imago Dei, I lose intellectual credibility when I say all human beings have the same moral status, but vary in their moral agency, but non-human animals vary in their moral status, and cannot be considered moral agents at all.

How, then, do we intellectually make exceptions for human beings? On this basis, we can’t. At some point, we are forced to make the rights of the human that are not in end-stage dementia, the unborn, and the profoundly mentally-handicapped submit to those of the cognitively superior, to the animals of greater “mental sophistication.”

Dr. Phillips has done a great service in distinguishing the concepts of moral status and moral agency. Be wary of those, like Mary Anne Warren, that do not.