Baroness Warnock was a philosopher by training who did much to popularise the work of existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre in the UK, though “popularise” is used loosely. But there was also a very practical bent to her philosophising and she achieved some sort of consensus around such thorny issues as infertility treatment and embryo research as head of a government inquiry in the 1980s.
She was a regular on big, tricky government inquiries and official committees. Six years before the Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology in 1984 there was the Warnock Report on Special Educational Needs. She also chaired the Government’s Advisory Committee on Animal Experiments in the 1980s.
Warnock was regarded by many as one of the great intellects of her age, and by some as one of the great egos.
Although she did achieve a degree of consensus on official inquiries and committees, she was not afraid to be controversial.
A passionate supporter of euthanasia, she suggested that those with dementia perhaps had “a duty” to die. She argued that people might give others the power of attorney to end their lives under certain circumstances.
“I think that’s the way the future will go,” she said. “Putting it rather bluntly, you’d be licensing people to put others down.
“Actually I think, why not, because the real person has gone already and all that’s left is just the body of a person, and nobody wants to be remembered in this condition.”
On another occasion she suggested severely deformed babies should be killed at birth. “What used to happen when people had babies at home and they were severely deformed was that the doctor or midwife would ‘cause’ the baby to die by turning it over or smothering it.
“My father-in-law was a GP and he used to do it. Afterwards he would say he couldn’t save it and there’d be no questions asked. A very good thing,” she said.
The youngest in a large family, she was born Helen Mary Wilson in 1924 in Winchester, where her father had been a housemaster at the local public school. He died before she was born.
She recalled her mother as an intellectual, eccentric and remote figure and was brought up largely by a nanny. It was a wealthy family – her mother’s father set up the National Westminster Bank.
She went to boarding schools and studied and then taught philosophy at Oxford University, where she met Geoffrey Warnock, who also lectured on philosophy.
She said: “He sent me a poem, and by a very uncharacteristic oversight he left attached to this poem something that indicated that he had actually written it for his earlier love, who had cast him off.”
Rather than being insulted, the practicality of such recycling appealed to her. “I always found it funny,” she said. They married in 1949.
He later became Sir Geoffrey and was vice-chancellor of the university. A formidable intellectual pairing, they enjoyed high-brow debate and watching The Muppets together.
In 1966, Mary Warnock took the post of headmistress of Oxford High girls school, which her daughters had attended.
She noticed that school records on one of the daughters had mysteriously disappeared and speculated that it was to remove staff comments on what a tiresome mother the girl had.
In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher, while Secretary of State for Education, asked Warnock to head a committee on the education of disabled children. The report brought children with special needs into mainstream schooling, but Warnock later changed her views feeling that they became victims of bullying and part of a battle for resources.
The birth of Louise Brown, the UK’s first test-tube baby in 1978, raised a whole raft of moral questions on artificial fertilisation and more wide-ranging issues of embryo research, and again Thatcher turned to Warnock to oversee an inquiry into developments.
Thatcher was a fan of Warnock, but it was not exactly reciprocated. Warnock could be both an intellectual and social snob and considered Thatcher “not exactly vulgar, just low”. She reckoned Thatcher “epitomised the worst of the lower middle class”, with its “odious suburban gentility”.
Warnock took a very pragmatic approach to the inquiry on artificial fertilisation and embryo research, leaving out personal feelings.
Andrew Brown in the Guardian memorably called her a “philosophical plumber to the establishment”. He said: “Whenever some tricky problem arose, she could be trusted to get things flowing again.”
The report led to the licensing of clinics for in vitro fertilisation and established strict legal limits on research and use of embryos. Although it did not please “pro-life” extremists, the report was widely praised. Warnock was made a dame in 1984 and a peer in 1985 and sat in the Lords as an independent. She was made a Companion of Honour in 2017.
She also became mistress of Cambridge University’s Girton College in 1985. Her husband was already principal of Hertford College, Oxford. It was the first time that a husband and wife were heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges at the same time.
He died in 1995. He had been incurably ill and she revealed that his morphine had been increased deliberately to make his death “peaceful and dignified”. She later wrote: “Society is getting better at facing the fact that many people at present suffer horrible deaths.
“We can admit now how deeply we desire a good death, for ourselves, our friends and family; how much we resent the assumption that death must be fended off at all costs.”
She is survived by four children. One predeceased her.