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Obituary: Baroness Warnock

29 March 2019


Lady Mary Warnock at a press conference, in January 1985, at which she welcomed government moves to outlaw rent-a-womb schemes

Lady Mary Warnock at a press conference, in January 1985, at which she welcomed government moves to outlaw rent-a-womb schemes

The Revd Professor Robin Gill writes:

BARONESS WARNOCK had a formidable reputation in bioethics and healthcare policy in Britain. She chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology 1982-84 that resulted in the so-called Warnock report, published as Question of Life (1985). This, in turn, led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 and to the setting-up of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority a year later. Thousands of couples in Britain desperate to have children have benefited from these important developments.

All of this is well-known and has been much praised in our national newspapers since her death, aged 94, on 20 March. Less recognised was the fact that she was a communicant Anglican and a member, together with Archbishop John Habgood, of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Medical Ethics Advisory Group throughout its existence (1993-2006). It met four times a year at Lambeth Palace. Indeed, they were two of the most faithful in attending this advisory group, despite facing great changes in their lives — especially the death of Warnock’s husband in 1995 and Habgood’s retirement from York in the same year.

Warnock and Habgood spoke in very similar ways, offering staccato, highly logical, and always compassionate opinions on a variety of issues in medical ethics — genetics, health rationing, persistent vegetative states, stem-cell research, assisted dying, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and many other topical issues. They did not always reach the same conclusion and, even when they did, they typically reached their conclusion by a different but ingenious route. They manifestly respected each other deeply. She was three years older than him but, oddly, they have both now died in the same month.

As chair of these Lambeth Palace two-hour meetings (usually on a single topic), I found it a joy to hear them and other national experts contribute, and to know that any bishops present would be able to deepen their knowledge of the ethical issue at stake before contributing to a debate in, say, the House of Lords. If nothing else, these bishops would then be fully aware of the informed eloquence of these two formidable members of the House.

Warnock and Habgood were also quite alike in their lack of religious dogmatism. In her case, an intellectual attachment to existentialist philosophy made her hesitant to express any religious convictions confidently. Her two best-known works, beyond the Warnock report, were Existentialist Ethics (1966) and Existentialism (1970). In his case, an early commitment to careful, empirical science made him cautious of religious dogmatism and equipped him to write his mature book Being a Person (1998), combining, as it does, knowledgeable science with an inclusive and nuanced faith.

I suspect that they might both have had some sympathy with the important but elusive way in which the philosopher Wittgenstein was religious — that is, holding more respect for people who act in Christ-like compassionate ways than for people who merely proclaim their confident Christian faith. In later life, Mary Warnock expressed strong support for Bishop Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality: Keeping religion out of ethics. And in a House of Lords debate on legalising euthanasia (on which he disagreed with her), Habgood famously proclaimed (unlike other bishops who spoke) that he would make no reference to God. For Warnock, Holloway, and Habgood, public ethics was not to be confused with preaching to the faithful.

At the end of the Times obituary (22 March), the writer stated bluntly: “Warnock did not believe in God or an afterlife, but she did believe that ‘when somebody dies they do continue to live in a way, because there are lots of people . . . who have loved them and who think about them all the time.’”

Perhaps that does represent part of her position. Yet I remember her speaking, together with Professors Richard Hare and Basil Mitchell, at Cumberland Lodge some four decades ago. Hare introduced her as an agnostic; yet when she spoke she said simply: ‘Well, actually, I am not.’ She then said nothing further on that topic. At that stage, at least, she might have been better depicted as religiously reticent. . . perhaps adhering to Wittgenstein’s celebrated dictum not to speak about things that cannot be spoken about. Not too different from Hare himself.

Like Hare (and David Martin two weeks ago), she also relished the Book of Common Prayer, even quoting it as follows in her 2002 Royal Institute of Philosophy lecture: “In the metaphor of religion ‘It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves.’ The Romantic idea of nature is something that we cannot, and most of us would not want to, disburden ourselves of. There is a sense of the word ‘nature’ in which nature is the source of our greatest pleasures and insights and which gives meaning to our lives.”

In her final book, Dishonest to God: Keeping religion out of politics (2010), despite expressing strong reservations about some of the ethical interventions of bishops in the House of Lords, she stated clearly that “the Church of England has played a significant part in my life.”

After the death of her husband, the philosopher Geoffrey Warnock, Mary Warnock became more outspoken in favour of voluntary euthanasia, especially in her book Easeful Death (2008). It is likely that this was influenced by the trauma of Geoffrey’s protracted death. It also led her to claim that a doctor had helped him to die by giving him a large dose of morphine. She then realised that this could risk the doctor’s being prosecuted, and backed down somewhat from this claim, especially on realising that many of those in serious pain can safely tolerate high doses of morphine.

Compassion was an important reason for her support of voluntary euthanasia and also for her finally backing down to protect the doctor. Indeed, in Easeful Death she identified “compassion, aroused by sympathy, or engagement with others”, as her primary motive. Whatever credal faith she did or did not have, it was surely (eminently Christian) compassion that was key to her public life.

We have much to thank God for her life-changing public service.

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