75 pivotal public policies: the Warnock report

Louise Brown, the world’s first “test-tube baby”, was born in Oldham, England, on July 25th 1978. Her arrival prompted wide-ranging public debates about the ethics of in vitro fertilization and related issues about the emerging field of embryo science.

Four years later, the British government appointed Baroness Mary Warnock, a highly respected Oxbridge philosopher, to head a committee of inquiry into human fertilization and embryology, which in 1984 published a hugely influential report, mixing philosophical discussion and practical recommendations. These included the establishment in 1990 of Britain’s governmental Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, whose regulatory role included ensuring compliance with a requirement that embryos can only be experimented on until they are 14 days old.

This institutional and philosophical framework inspired similar approaches in much of the rest of the world, making possible the ultimately surprisingly uncontroversial rollout of a technology that has resulted in an estimated 8m or more successful births to parents who would otherwise have struggled to conceive. It has also provided a strong philosophical starting point for evaluating further bioethical issues, such as the uses of stem cells and genetic engineering.


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