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Baroness Mary Warnock: An awesome intellect and joyous human being

25 March 2019
By Dr Sue Avery
Director of Birmingham Women's Fertility Centre and Trustee at the Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 992

It is November 2015, and the woman described by the Daily Mail as having 'a monstrous ego that has destroyed so much of our moral and social heritage', is sitting, small and twinkly-eyed, on the sofa in her south London home, with Sarah Norcross (PET director), Kirsty Horsey (PET adviser) and myself.

We are more than a little star-struck. But Baroness Mary Warnock is happy to chat to us for an interview with BioNews, with no sign of 'monstrosity' or 'ego' (see BioNews 837). It is hard to remember that she is 90 years old. She is as engaged and interested as ever. I recalled our interview clearly when I heard the news that Mary passed away last week, aged 94 (see this week's news story).

She told us then that the two best and essential things the Warnock Committee did were to recommend the setting up of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), and to bring about the '14-day-rule', the limit beyond which no human embryo may be kept in culture.

Ironically, the latter currently excites more argument and controversy than any other aspect of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. It is a rule which Mary was prepared to defend at the 2016 Progress Annual Conference, in the face of a scientific community that feels fettered by what appears to be an arbitrary cut-off, but which is something a little more than that. 

The Warnock report, while not prescient enough for some, was sufficiently prescient to deliver us a regulatory framework that meant, and continues to mean, that we can carry out research on gametes and embryos, and we can deliver treatments based on the latest science.

In other words, the regulation and legislation that grew from the Warnock report left room for adaptation and innovation, without losing sight of the sensitivity of the subject for society as a whole, and the concept of the special status of the human embryo.

With hindsight, those of us who viewed the arrival of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act with no little trepidation can see that it is this framework that has allowed us to avoid the highly restrictive and reactionary rules that impacted cruelly on patients and stifled scientific development in other parts of the world.

The Warnock report was published in 1984, but, despite the many other areas of philosophy and ethics that drew her attention, Mary never left it behind. She continued to feel some responsibility for its impact, and considered her original conclusions in the light of new developments.

She was by no means universally loved. There were those who were outraged by the permissiveness of the Warnock report recommendations. She also excited controversy and criticism by speaking out in favour of assisted dying, an opinion informed in part by her experience of her husband's death.

Mary was accused of taking advantage of her position as, what the Guardian called 'Britain's chief moral referee' to propound ideas that are abhorrent and amoral to some. In fairness, she never sought to impose her views. She simply put them forward, with the arguments and rationale behind them. This is surely the philosopher's role. 

As a philosopher she was aware of her limitations when it came to science, and knew when to take advice, and from whom. This did not stop her from bemoaning her lack of a scientific education. She even proposed the establishment of a GCSE on general scientific principles that would be taken by those pursuing non-scientific careers, stating that: 'We have got to learn not to be afraid of the language of physics or chemistry.' On the other hand, like any good scientist, she never stopped asking questions. 

In the still fairly young field of assisted conception, it is fashionable to call on any surviving pioneers whenever we meet a significant milestone, and we listen with respect to their version of history, because they were there. Mary was different. We listened to her because she had something to say about the present as well as the impact of the past. She would say her something clearly, calmly and sincerely. Her messages were never obscured by philosophical or ethical jargon, and her lectures were almost conversational.

By the magic of internet, you can watch her addressing the Oxford Theological Society on the evils of theocracies with the same, almost intimate style. What she seems to be saying is 'this is what I believe, and this is the reasoning and logic behind it – the rest is up to you'. 

This is not the approach we might expect from someone with a 'titanic and dangerous ego'. Indeed, she gave the impression that she was not in anyway important – only the ideas were important.

We will miss her clarity of thought, her honesty, her enthusiasm and her support. And we will miss her as a very special human being.

As for her legacy, if we are going to consider changing the 14-day rule, it should only be done with the same breadth, depth and quality of thought and reason as the first time around. The current rule may seem arbitrary and frustrating from a scientist's perspective, but Mary would be the first to tell you that it is far from being all about the science. 

On a personal note, I am eternally grateful for that magical afternoon in November 2015, and we star-struck three can only mourn that fact that it will never come again.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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