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Aspects of Life of Mary Warnock

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Mary Warnock raised five children at Oxford in the 50s, was a headmistress in the 60s, wrote books about Sartre and became Master of Girton, despite a strong fear of failure. But it is her no-nonsense approach to ethical dilemmas in embryology that has left the greatest mark on public policy.

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Baroness Mary Warnock of Weeke, a philosopher and crossbench member and Life Peer of the United Kingdom's House of Lords, participated in several national UK committees of inquiry that dealt with ethical and policy issues from animal experimentation, pollution, genetics, and euthanasia to educational policies for children with special needs. One of these was the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology, of which Warnock was the chair. The 1985 Warnock Report issued subsequent to this inquiry led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, passed in the British House of Commons, and to the creation of the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in 1991. Warnock has published a number of books on topics including existentialism, imagination, reproductive rights and research ethics, euthanasia, the place of religion in politics, as well as several memoirs.Warnock was born Helen Mary Wilson on 14 April 1924 in Winchester, England, to Ethel Mary Schuster and Archie Wilson. Warnock's father was, by the time of her birth, already dead seven months. Archie Wilson had been housemaster and teacher of Modern Languages at Winchester College in Winchester. In late 1923 he caught diphtheria during a school-wide outbreak and died, leaving behind five children and a newly pregnant wife. Warnock's eldest brother Malcom Wilson had what would later be diagnosed as a sever case of autism and lived most of his life in various medical and mental-health institutions. After Malcom came Jean, Duncan, Grizel, Stephana, and finally Helen Mary. The Wilson family also had a nanny, Emily Coleman, who stayed with them from 1920 until she died in in Mary's sister's house in 1976, at the age of ninety-four.

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Mary Warnock was born Mary Wilson in Winchester on 14 April 1924, seven months after her father had died from diphtheria. Despite being one of six children in a single-parent family, she enjoyed a comfortable childhood. Her family remained wealthy thanks to her maternal grandfather, the German-born banker Sir Felix Schuster, and she was educated at the prestigious St Swithin’s school in Winchester ( Warnock Mary, 2000). After leaving this school in 1940, she spent three terms at St Prior’s school in Surrey, which counted Julian and Aldous Huxley among its former pupils. In 1942 she won a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to study Classics. It was here that she met a fellow student, Geoffrey Warnock, who went on to become a well-known philosopher and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford. They married in 1949, and that same year the new Mrs Warnock was appointed lecturer in moral philosophy at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Warnock recalls that ‘philosophy in Oxford was then in the high point of success’, with large student numbers and over thirty members of staff (Mary Warnock, 2009). The dominant figures were Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin, who encouraged meta-ethical work on the meaning and classification of language. Although A. J. Ayer had recently left for London, Warnock noted that his influence ‘seemed most difficult to shake off’.

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As has been noted, Mary Warnock is perhaps best known for chairing two national committees of inquiry for Great Britain each of which published a significant report. The first (1974–78) reported on the education of handicapped children and young persons and resulted in Special Educational Needs (1978). The second and most influential inquiry dealt with the ethics of embryos and human fertilisation entitled A Question of Life: The Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology (1984 reprinted 1985) which was published six years after the birth of the first test-tube baby. She returned to writing about issues related to the ethics of human reproduction in Making Babies: Is There a Right to Have Children? (2002).

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Embryo Therapy: The Philosopher’s Role in Public Debate. In: Bromham DR, Dalton ME, Millican PJR, editors. Ethics in Reproductive Medicine. London: Springer Verlag; 1992. pp. 21–31. (p. 31).

On Warnock’s early life and education, Warnock Mary. People and Places: A Memoir. London: Duckworth; 2000. pp. 1–15.

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Aspects of Life of Mary Warnock
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