Warnock, Mary

Warnock, Mary
   b. 1924
   Baroness Warnock has contributed to contemporary British culture in both academic philosophy and public services concerning education and bioethics. A former headmistress of Oxford High School, Fellow and Tutor at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge from 1985–91, Warnock was made a life peer in 1985. She is married to the philosopher Sir Geoffrey Warnock.
   Mary Warnock is well known for her work in moral philosophy, particularly concerning existentialist ethics, J.S.Mills’s utilitarianism and the concept of moral sense in Hume and in contemporary bioethics. Her short but extremely respected book On Ethics Since 1900 presents a lucid and accessible account of the major transformations occurring in English and continental moral philosophy in the twentieth century. She has also devoted an interesting volume to women philosophers. Her most recent research has centred around the philosophy of mind, to which she has contributed substantial works, Imagination (1976) and Memory (1987).
   Warnock’s reputation as a moral philosopher led her to chair two government inquiries that have exerted considerable influence on British public awareness and legislation. The first inquiry in the mid-1970s concerned education, particularly special education needs. The second, and most famous, was the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, established in 1982. In July 1978, the first test-tube baby was successfully delivered in Britain. The social, ethical, theological and legal implications of this scientific breakthrough and its potential developments were enormous. For the first time, human life could be created and/or assisted artificially. This offered great hope in alleviating the infertility problems experienced by many British couples. However, it generated deep anxieties from different sections of British society concerning where the limits to practices such as artificial insemination by donor (AID), in vitro fertilization (IVF), human egg/ embryo donation and surrogate motherhood should be drawn. Arguments against some or all of these practices mainly rested on the deviation from the natural process of fertilization and the separation of unitive and procreative aspects of marital sexual intercourse. Other arguments against concern the introduction of a third party into the procreative process, possibly for financial gain, and the likelihood that IVF would create a surplus of embryos, some of which would not have the chance of reintroduction into the mothers uterus. The possibility of IVF raised a number of serious ethical dilemmas never before experienced. For the first time, the existence of embryos outside the mother’s uterus had to be considered, and their moral status had to be defined and protected. This required a reassessment of where the boundaries of personhood, and the respect of rights that go with it, should now be placed. The deepest anxieties revolved around the ethical sustainability of the use of human embryos for the scientific research necessary to improve human assisted reproduction techniques.
   The new techniques and practices clearly required careful examination and protracted discussion, from which an adequate ethical and legal framework could be drawn and implemented. In consequence, the committee chaired by Mary Warnock deliberated upon many of the issues and implications involved in recent and potential developments in human assisted reproduction. It took evidence from all interested parties and attempted to reach conclusions that were both philosophically well-based and consensually satisfactory. Its findings and recommendations were published as The Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology in 1984.
   Warnock stressed that the methods of deliberation undertaken by the Inquiry could not be based on obedience to established moral rules alone. The creation of human life in laboratory conditions constituted such a radical departure from former practices that established codes of moral conduct could not be expected to govern all the principles behind the new techniques and their implications. To some extent, therefore, new principles governing moral conduct would be required. As such principles were not altogether forthcoming or clear, some decisions were based less on clearcut moral criteria than on the need to ‘allay public anxiety’.
   The report separated out certain issues. In a free society, it was felt that assisted reproduction could not be regulated and/or policed without encroaching on some basic individual liberties. However, the report advocated that AID, gamete/ embryo donation, surrogacy and IVF should always be practised non-commercially and that involved medical practitioners must be licensed to, and subject to the regulations of, a proposed authority. The most difficult problem the report had to deal with was the limits that should be placed on embryo research. Some representations to the Committee were based on the principle that human embryos should be afforded some protection in law. Hitherto, the human embryo per se did not have direct legal protection.
   It was felt that the report attempted to ameliorate the opinions such dissension represented by restricting the period over which embryo research could be undertaken. They recommended that research might be carried out on an in vitro embryo until the end of the fourteenth day after fertilization, after which any further research/ handling of the embryo would be a criminal offence. The fourteenday distinction was based on some scientific evidence, primarily the appearance of the primitive streak within the embryo when the beginnings of the spinal cord develop, thus leading to distinct cellular division and even to the possibility of feeling pain. Nonetheless, it was admitted that there was no clear scientific grounds at which point a respected rather than an unrespected embryo occurred: ‘However we agreed that this was an area in which some precise decision must be taken, in order to allay public anxiety’. The report made it clear that a new, independent statutory licensing authority was essential to regulate Britain’s infertility services and embryo research, to inquire into and license current practice(s) and to technically and ethically scrutinize any future proposals for their ethical significance.
   The Warnock report was sent out for consultation under white papers in 1986 and 1987, and after submission was enshrined in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which also set up an authority to license procedures, police the act and take a broad legal and ethical view on actions and proposed actions falling under its general remit. Broadly speaking, there is a wide consensus that the Act has worked fairly well and that, within its fairly narrowly defined remit, the licensing authority has worked moderately well. There is some concern that membership of the licensing authority has been drawn fairly narrowly and might overly represent vested interests. This seems to be a general weakness in the appointments that have been made to such bodies: on the whole, they tend to take a narrow view of their remit. A recent, highly publicized case has been that of Diane Blood, who sought permission to utilize the sperm of her dead husband taken from him while he was comatose and on life support. While it was widely agreed that he had previously given verbal consent to such a procedure, the Embryology Authority refused permission on the narrow if formal grounds of lack of written consent. In the event, after appeal she was permitted to take the sperm to another European country. In respect of this case, Mary Warnock publicly said that this was exactly the difficult kind of case that the Committee had not foreseen and that it indicated the need for flexibility in this area. This indicates that the Embryology Authority needs a degree of philosophically and consensually based common sense rather than merely strict legal definitions in guiding its decisions. The latter alone will never do: the situation is far too fast-moving for the law to lead. It must, therefore, be philosophically acute, legally aware and publicly acute individuals that form part of such bodies. Warnock, it seems, established the broad principles, but the combination of flexibility of practice and clear limits has yet to be met.
   See also: Abortion Acts; euthanasia

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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