The outgoing chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Lisa Jardine, has been paying graceful tribute to the woman whose report enabled the Authority to be set up: Dame Mary Warnock. She was, observed Prof Jardine, in an aural essay on Radio 4’s A Point of View, regarded as something of a philosophical plumber to the establishment, a woman who cleared away all the tiresome impediments in the way of getting things done with her practical, no-nonsense approach. And the Warnock Report of 1984 on in vitro fertilisation and its attendant moral problems was a case in point.
Now, Dame Mary’s utility to the establishment as someone who can put a useful philosophical spin on any liberal consensus has indeed been invaluable. I can’t find it in myself, however, to share the view that this contribution has been benign. I’d say myself her philosophy amounts to vulgar utilitarianism, the kind that got Machiavelli an unfairly bad press from its popular expression as the end justifying the means, but better known from Jeremy Bentham’s formula of whatever gives you the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It appeals to British pragmatism all right, at the expense of any serious consideration of ethical principles. In this case, the principle in question is whether the human embryo has a special moral status which should prevent it being used as a means to other ends, such as medical research.
The report’s conclusion was pretty well that it doesn’t, that up to 14 days old (the point at which as Dame Mary put it, “I become me”), you can indeed use them for experimentation, particularly those embryos that were left over from attempts at pregnancy – spares, as the parlance was. And that conclusion, that the human embryo was pretty well up for grabs, up to this perfectly arbitrary point (after which it was unlikely that the embryo would split to become twins), was the beginning of that slippery slope down which we have already slipped. In other words, the embryo became a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The Warnock Report’s engagement with the status of the embryo makes interesting reading. But I’d refer you to the note of dissent at the end, from Madeline Carriline, John Marshall and Jean Walker, in which they take issue with the breezy approach of the chairwoman to the question of instrumentalising the human embryo. ‘It is in our view wrong to create something with the potential for becoming a human person and then deliberately to destroy it,’ they say with what seems now like quaint absolutism. But their warning, that eventually medics would find the use of spare embryos inadequate, and that embryos would be created especially for the purpose of research, was prescient: that’s what happened.
Prof Jardine concludes that the HFEA is a triumph of British principle and pragmatism and cites the creation of three-parent embryos as an instance of how terrifically well it works. The huge moral problems around creating an embryo with a nucleus from two parents and mitochondria from a third do not even figure. Yet, this bit of our makeup – a half of the mass of a cell – accounts for the efficiency with which we metabolise energy, a rather important feature; if I were creating a three parent embryo I’d want the third parent to be someone like Venus Williams. But, like her inspiration, Dame Mary Warnock, Prof Jardine doesn’t really do moral absolutism. Which is presumably why she was chosen for the job of leading the HFEA in the first place.