The Warnock Debate


Two members of the Editorial Board of ETHICS & MEDICINE had the pleasure, just before this issue went to press, of debating some of the ethical issues arising out of the Warnock Report before Durham Union Society. They had been promised Dr Robert Edwards to oppose the motion that This House would not interfere with the natural beginnings of human life, but in the event he was unable to be present. His place was taken by a senior gynaecologist who has for some time been associated with his work, sitting on the ethical committee of Bourne Hall; seconded by a Cambridge law lecturer.

Debate was lively. The gynaecologist defended research on the embryo, and reacted violently to the proposers’ contention that from fertilisation the embryo, since it was biologically/genetically a member of the human species, was deserving of the respect we afford to other humans. If that were so, he said, it would make him a murderer; and a murderer he was not. He went on to make a number of interesting admissions. The 14-day limit on embryo research, proposed by Warnock, had nothing to do with concern for’ the development of primitive sentience on the part of the embryo. Its real criterion was the present inability of researchers to maintain embryos in vitro any later than this point. Moreover, the 14-day limit was just for the present. Those working in the field would soon be seeking an extension to 21 days; and then to 28. These were very candid statements from one close to those leading research in this area, and they plainly embarrassed his seconder, who had put forward a more limited case.

The proposition was at pains to point out that ‘murder’ had been introduced into the debate without any desire on their part, and that murder requires an intention to kill a human person. The problem which we had to face was that those opposing this motion did not recognise a human person in the embryo. The analogy was drawn between the embryo and those many groups of human beings who at different times in history have been regarded as non-persons, despite their appearance of human status. Recent evidence of prisoners-of-war being used by the Japanese for experimental purposes illustrated the implications of any principle that would permit the use of human subjects for inhuman ends.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the debate was the speeches from the floor, as students made able contributions to discussion. The great majority—to the embarrassment of those proposing the motion!—were firmly against not merely experimental use of the embryo, but the developments of which it is an integral element. One student spoke of her friendship with handicapped colleagues, and of how this made her feel about the discarding of embryos with abnormalities, and abortion for fetal handicap. Another speech, perhaps the most memorable, was from a woman with a teenage child with Down’s Syndrome who spoke passionately of her revulsion at the attitude of those who would dispose of the abnormal. She added that her father had suffered at the hands of the Japanese who had degraded him and treated him as sub-human.

What of the vote? It was close. The floor debate was plainly unrepresentative, perhaps, one might suggest, because those who had reflected most on the questions at issue had ‘been most strongly influenced against the in vitro process, while the unreflective assumed that recent developments must necessarily be good. But the motion was won: 97 for, 93 against, 12 abstentions. It may be that this is an augur of the public debate now in process.


Cite as: Nigel M. de S. Cameron, “The Warnock Debate,” Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics 1, no. 1 (1985): 1–2.


About the Author

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, PhD
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Nigel M. de S. Cameron, PhD, MBA is President of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, in Washington, DC, which he founded in 2007, and Technology/Futures editor at

In the 1990s, Cameron served as Distinguished Professor of Theology and Culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and was first Provost of Trinity International University. More recently he was a Research Professor and Associate Dean at Chicago-Kent College of Law in the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). In 2016 he was Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Science and Society at the University of Ottawa, Canada.

His most recent books are Will Robots Take Your Job? A Plea for Consensus (Polity/Wiley, 2017), and The Robots are Coming. Us, Them, and God (CARE Trust, forthcoming, 2017). He co-wrote with Joni Eareckson Tada How to be a Christian in a Brave New World (Zondervan, 2006) and co-edited with Charles W. Colson Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy (Inter-Varsity, 2004). Other books include Nanoscale: Issues and Perspectives for the Nano Century (Wiley, 2007, co-edited); and The New Medicine: Life and Death after Hippocrates (Hodders, 1991).

He has been a visiting scholar at UBS Wolfsberg in Switzerland, a featured speaker at the Aspen Ideas Festival and Global Health Forum, and invited chair of GITEX, the leading Middle East tech conference in Dubai. Recent speaking engagements have included conferences hosted by The Economist magazine in Hong Kong and Spain, and the Champalimaud Foundation conference in Portugal on the world in 100 years' time.

Cameron has represented the United States on delegations to the United Nations General Assembly and UNESCO, and been a participant in the U.S./EU dialogue Perspectives on the Future of Science and Technology. He is in his fourth term as a Commissioner of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and Chair of its Committee on Social and Human Sciences. He has testified before both houses of Congress, the European Parliament and the European Commission's Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies. In 2007 he was the United States Government's nominee to the UN Human Rights Council as Special Rapporteur for the Right to Health. A native of the UK, he studied at Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities and the Edinburgh Business School.

Posted in Editorial.