Creating the 'ethics industry': Mary Warnock, in vitro fertilization and the history of bioethics in Britain

Biosocieties. 2011 Jun;6(2):121-141. doi: 10.1057/biosoc.2010.26. Epub 2010 Nov 29.


Recent decades have seen a shift in the management and discussion of biomedicine. Issues once considered by doctors and scientists are now handled by a diverse array of participants, including philosophers, lawyers, theologians and lay representatives. This new approach, known as 'bioethics', has become the norm in regulatory committees and public debate. In this article, I argue that bioethics emerged as a valued enterprise in Britain during the 1980s because it fulfilled, and linked, the concerns of several groups. My analysis centres on the moral philosopher Mary Warnock, who chaired a government inquiry into human fertilization and embryology between 1982 and 1984, and became a strong advocate of bioethics. I detail how Warnock's promotion of bioethics tallied with the Conservative government's desire for increased surveillance of hitherto autonomous professions - while fulfilling her own belief that philosophers should engage in public affairs. And I also show that Warnock simultaneously promoted bioethics to doctors and scientists as an essential safeguard against declining political and public trust. This stance, I argue, framed bioethics as a vital intermediary between politics, the public, and biomedicine, and explains the growth and endurance of what the Guardian identified as an ethics industry.