Creating the ‘ethics industry’: Mary Warnock, in vitro fertilization and the history of bioethics in Britain

Duncan Wilson
The author examines Mary Warnock’s role leading her namesake committee in the UK during the 1980s to show how bioethics gained traction and became institutionalized in Britain. British bioethics responded to concerns that were different from those in the US, particularly the need to exert external oversight and scrutiny of scientific activities. Wilson’s account suggests that this oversight was necessary for research to continue. Warnock was convinced of the importance of having a public conversation about in vitro fertilization (IVF) rather than allowing scientists to make decisions about it behind closed doors. These developments also took place in a moment when philosophy and bioethics were in flux and beginning to take on more applied perspectives. Warnock’s handling of the committee was criticized by some of her peers for failing to reach a unanimous decision or any definitive answers grounded in philosophical arguments. However, Warnock appreciated that the use of human embryos involved incommensurable views in pluralist societies and that a compromise was therefore required. Proof of this is the six years of public discussion and debates in parliament that it took for the committee’s recommendations to become enshrined in law in the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act. The article concludes that Warnock left a legacy of moral pluralism and interdisciplinary oversight that have shaped and given credibility to bioethics for years to come.