Obituary: Baroness Warnock

Philosopher who helped create the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act


One of the most brilliant public intellectuals of her day, Baroness  Warnock of Weeke, who has died in her 94th year, was much in demand to lead public inquiries as diverse as pollution and animal experimentation, but she will be best remembered for her role as chair (1982-84) of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology. 

The subject-matter of this investigation had occasioned bitter controversy. But through dint of both her scholastic wisdom and plain common sense she achieved a broad consensus on the ethical issues surrounding human fertilisation and experimentation on embryos. This consensus received legal expression in the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act of 1990, which created the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority the following year. 

It is within this legal framework that astonishing medical breakthroughs have been achieved in, for example, embryo cloning and stem cell research.   
Beyond that achievement, however, Warnock was much in demand as a no-nonsense, if sometimes controversial and strong-willed commentator on a wide range of sensitive topics. In 1974 she chaired an inquiry into special education which created the system of ‘statementing’ children with additional needs,  which was only recently abandoned by the government.  

From 1979 to 1984 she was a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and between 1984 and 1989 she chaired a Home Office committee on animal experimentation. In 1998 she was a member of a government advisory panel on “spoliation”— described as the reckless or negligent withholding of evidence in relation to legal proceedings.  

This demanding life of public service was conducted alongside her academic work as a philosopher, ethicist and world-class authority on existentialism – especially the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. The author and editor of some 20 books, she combined working as a broadcaster and university administrator, with her role as a wife and a mother.

Helen Mary Wilson was born in Winchester. Her father Archibald, a housemaster at Winchester College, died before she was born. Her mother Ethel was the daughter of the banker Sir Felix Schuster and descended from a successful German-Jewish family in the world of business and academia. Educated at St Swithun’s School, Winchester, Mary won a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where her love of philosophy brought her to the attention of another young philosopher, Geoffrey Warnock, later Principal of Hertford College and Vice-Chancellor of the University. The couple were married in 1949. 

Elected to a fellowship in philosophy at St Hugh’s College, Mary committed herself to a punishing schedule of teaching, research and publication whilst bringing up a comparatively large family. In 1966 she became headmistress of Oxford High School (where two of her daughters were pupils) but six years later she returned to the university as fellow at Lady Margaret Hall (1972-76), returning to St Hugh’s  from 1976 to 84, when, until her formal retirement in 1991, she served as Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge. 

She was elevated to the peerage as Baroness Warnock of Weeke in the City of Winchester. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2000 and of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2011. In 2017 she was appointed a Companion of Honour.

She died at the family home in Wiltshire. Her husband died in 1995 and she is survived by two sons and two daughters (a third daughter having predeceased her). 

Baroness Warnock: born April 14, 1924. Died March 20, 2019

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