Intended for healthcare professionals


Mary Warnock: philosopher and author of the landmark report on the ethical framework for human fertilisation and embryology

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: (Published 02 April 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l1531
  1. Penny Warren
  1. London, UK
  1. penny.warren{at}
Photo credit: Gerald Duckworth and Company

On a June day in 1984, Mary Warnock said she experienced “a mounting panic.” Princess Margaret was late to a lunch they were both attending in Oxford, delaying it further with requests for gin and cigarettes. Warnock had to race to London afterwards to present her report to Norman Fowler, minister for health.

The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (1984) (the “Warnock report”) set out the regulatory framework and ethical consensus that still govern human fertilisation today. It was the work of a committee chaired by Warnock, which had spent two years painstakingly sifting evidence from doctors, scientists, anti-abortion groups, faith leaders, and many more.

The inquiry was prompted by new in vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques, which led to the birth of the first “test tube” baby, Louise Brown, in 1978. Some were uneasy about the ethics of IVF, and by 1980 MPs were lobbying for an inquiry.

Civil servants were quick to choose Warnock as chair. She had already successfully chaired another public inquiry. They wanted an outsider, …

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