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Developmental Landmarks and the Warnock Report: A Sociological Account of Biological Translation

  • Sarah Franklin (a1)


At a crucial meeting during their proceedings, on 9 November 1983, the sixteen members of Britain's influential Warnock Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology reached a key decision on how to base proposals for comprehensive legislation governing this largely uncharted territory. Famously, they chose the formation of the “primitive streak” in the early embryo as the basis for the fourteen-day rule that has now served as the global benchmark for experimental research in this area for nearly thirty years. Based on newly available archival material and interviews, this article offers a sociological account of the ways in which a specific translation of biological facts became the basis for an enduring social contract governing controversial bioinnovation in the UK. In particular, the combined roles of Committee Chair Mary Warnock and biologist Anne McLaren are examined in terms of how a decision, or “iterative settlement,” was reached as to “where to draw the line” using specific “developmental landmarks” to establish a basis for legal regulation. Drawing from this analysis, I offer a broader argument concerning the sociology of biological translation and biogovernance that is germane to ongoing debates such that over how to limit CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing. I contend also that we have yet to fully grasp the historical and sociological lessons to be drawn from the early histories of establishing governance over new forms of technological assistance to human reproduction, and in particular the formation of the “Warnock Consensus.”

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1 A growing literature surrounds the development of IVF by individuals directly involved in its history as either scientists or policy makers: e.g., Elder, Kay and Johnson, Martin H., “The Oldham Notebooks: An Analysis of the Development of IVF 1969–1978,” Reproductive Biomedicine & Society Online 1, 1 (2015): 38; Deech, Ruth and Smajdor, Anna, From IVF to Immortality: Controversy in the Era of Reproductive Technology (Oxford University Press, 2007). Journalists have also contributed: e.g., Mundy, Liza, Everything Conceivable: How the Science of Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Our World (Knopf, 2007); Zoll, Miriam, Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility, and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies (Interlink Books, 2013). Few scholarly studies, however, analyze IVF as a disruptive or translational technology in broader socioeconomic terms; see Squier, Susan Merrill, Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology (Blackwell, 1994); Thompson, Charis Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies (MIT Press, 2005); Franklin, Sarah, Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship (Duke University Press, 2013).

2 Strathern, Marilyn, Reproducing the Future: Anthropology, Kinship, and the New Reproductive Technologies (Manchester University Press, 1992); Golombok, Susan, Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms (Cambridge University Press, 2015); Nordqvist, Petra and Smart, Carol, Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

3 Franklin, Sarah and Inhorn, Marcia, “IVF Global Histories,” Reproductive Biomedicine and Society Online 2 (2016): 17.

4 Spar, Debora L., The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception (Harvard University Press, 2005); Cooper, Melinda E., Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (University of Washington Press, 2008); Cooper, Melinda and Waldby, Catherine, Clinical Labour: Tissue Donors and Research Subjects in the Global Bioeconomy (Duke University Press, 2014).

5 Inhorn, Marcia and Gurtin, Zeynep, “Cross-Border Reproductive Care,” Reproductive Biomedicine Online 23, 5 (2011): 665–76.

6 Maienschein, Jane, Whose View of Life? Embryos, Cloning, and Stem Cells (Harvard University Press, 2003); Franklin, Sarah, Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy (Duke University Press, 2007).

7 “Translational” is a millennial policy term referring to the derivation of clinical benefit from publicly funded science (e.g., David Cooksey, “A Review of UK Health Research Funding,” Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 2006). This managerial definition of translation was introduced to accelerate the development of “useful” and profitable clinical applications from basic science; e.g., Cambrosio, et al. , “Mapping the Emergence and Development of Translational Cancer Research,” European Journal of Cancer 42, 18 (2007): 3140–48.

8 For classic sociological accounts of biomedical “translation,” see Fujimura, Joan H., Crafting Science: A Sociohistory of the Quest for the Genetics of Cancer (Harvard University Press, 1992); Löwy, Ilana, Between Bench and Bedside: Science, Healing, and Interleukin-2 in a Cancer Ward (Harvard University Press, 1997); or Star, Susan Leigh and Griesemer, James, “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects,” Social Studies of Science 19 (1989): 387420. For more recent accounts, see Keating, Peter and Cambrosio, Alberto, Biomedical Platforms: Realigning the Normal and the Pathological in Late-Twentieth-Century Medicine (MIT Press, 2006); Rajan, Kaushik Sunder and Leonelli, Sabina, “Biomedical Trans-actions, Postgenomics, and Knowledge/Value,” Public Culture 25, 3 (2013): 463–75.

9 Wainwright, Steven P. et al. , “From Bench to Bedside? B,” Social Science & Medicine 63, 8 (2006): 2052–64.

10 Ibid., 2062.

11 David Willetts, “Eight Great Technologies” (UK Government, 2013), at: (accessed 21 May 2019); Gardner, John et al. , “Promissory Identities: Sociotechnical Representations and Innovation in Regenerative Medicine,” Social Science and Medicine 174 (2017): 7078.

12 Jasanoff, Sheila, Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States (Princeton University Press, 2005); Spar, Baby Business.

13 Franklin, Sarah, “The HFEA in Context,” Reproductive Biomedicine Online 26, 4 (2013): 310–12.

14 For a fuller account of the “pragmatic” British approach, see Warnock, Mary, Nature & Morality: Recollections of a Philosopher in Public Life (Continuum, 2004), 100; Montgomery, Jonathan Robert, “Rights, Restraints and Pragmatism: The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990,” Modern Law Review 54, 4 (1991): 524–34.

15 Morgan, Derek, Blackstone's Guide to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990: Abortion and Embryo Research, the New Law (Blackstone Press, 1991; Jackson, Emily, Regulating Reproduction: Law, Technology and Autonomy (Hart Publishing, 2001); Chang, Wendy Y. and DeCherney, Alan H., “History of Regulation of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) in the USA: A Work in Progress,” Human Fertility 6, 2 (2003): 6470.

16 Gunning, Jennifer and English, Veronica, Human In Vitro Fertilization: A Case Study in the Regulation of Medical Innovation (Medico Legal Studies) (Dartmouth Publishing, 1994); Wilson, Duncan, “Creating the Ethics Industry: Mary Warnock, in Vitro Fertilization and the History of Bioethics in Britain,” BioSocieties 6, 2 (2011): 121–41; Wilson, Duncan, The Making of British Bioethics (Manchester University Press, 2014); Mulkay, Michael, The Embryo Research Debate: Science and the Politics of Reproduction (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

17 Following a ten-year search, an incomplete but comprehensive series of declassified Warnock Committee files was unexpectedly discovered on a research visit in January 2016 to the Department of Health Repository in Burnley, Lancashire. Fifteen of these files (FPS/0015/0001/V02-11, and FPS/0015/004/V01-6) are currently being transferred to the National Archives in Kew. These files cover the period 1 April 82 through 13 July 1984, and are divided roughly into papers prepared for meetings, internal correspondence, and minutes and follow-up from meetings. A previously released, incomplete set of Warnock files is held at the National Archives as part of the Medical Research Council files, in the FD7 series.

18 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Cmnd 9314 (Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1984); Warnock, Mary, A Question of Life: The Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Basil Blackwell, 1985).

19 Warnock, Nature and Mortality.

20 Mulkay, Embryo Research Debate.

21 Ibid., 14; and see Franklin, Sarah, “UK IVF: A Tale of Two Halves,” in Mackie, Vera, Marks, Nicola, and Ferber, Sarah, eds., The Reproductive Industry: Intimate Experiences and Global Processes (Lexington Books, 2019), 1530.

22 Cannell, Fenella, “Concepts of Parenthood: The Warnock Report, the Gillick Debate, and Modern Myths,” American Ethnologist 17, 4 (1990): 667–86.

23 Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack, Abortion and Woman's Choice: The State, Sexuality, and Reproductive Freedom (Northeastern University Press, Series in Feminist Theory, 1990 [1984]); Ginsburg, Faye D., Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community (University of California Press, 1989).

24 Franklin, Sarah, Lury, Celia, and Stacey, Jackie, “Feminism, Marxism and Thatcherism” in Franklin, S., Lury, C. and Stacey, J., eds, Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies, (Harpercollins Academic, 1991), 2146.

25 Lord Bishop of Rochester, House of Lord Debates, 9 July 1982, vol. 432, column 1000-1.

26 Lord Campbell, House of Lord Debates, 9 July 1982, vol. 432 column 1000–1.

27 McLaren was chosen when Professor Walter Bodmer was unable to accept his invitation to join the Committee.

28 Horsey, Kirsty and Biggs, Hazel, eds., Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (Routledge-Cavendish, 2007).

29 More than a dozen countries, including India and China, restrict in vitro research on human embryos to within the first fourteen days of development.

30 The Committee met eighteen times in just less than twenty-one months between October 1982 and June 1984, and as a consequence, preparations were elaborate and thorough but also rushed and fast-paced. The Agenda for 9 November 1983 was revised and recirculated at least once before the meeting, and papers were renumbered and reordered. Briefings from the Secretariat, correspondence to other government departments, and minutes from the meetings fill in some details about what was discussed, what conclusions were drawn, and what evidence proved influential.

31 Van Dyck, José, Manufacturing Babies and Public Consent: Debating the New Reproductive Technologies (Palgrave Macmillan, 1994); Spallone, Patricia, “Reproductive Technology and the State,” in Spallone, Patricia and Steinberg, Deborah Lynn, eds., Made to Order: Myth of Reproductive and Genetic Progress (Pergamon Press, 1987), 166–83; Edwards, Jeanette et al. , Technologies of Procreation: Kinship in the Age of Assisted Conception (Manchester University Press, 1999); Strathern, Marilyn, Reproducing the Future: Anthropology, Kinship, and the New Reproductive Technologies (Manchester University Press, 1992); Strathern, Marilyn, After Nature: English Kinship in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1992); Franklin, Sarah, Embodied Progress: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception (Routledge, 1997); Jasanoff, Sheila, “Making the Facts of Life,” in Jasanoff, Shela, ed., Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age (MIT Press, 2011), 5984; Wilson, “Where to Draw the Line?,” ch. 4 in Making of British Bioethics.

32 For a discussion of the affective complexity of biological facts, see Franklin, SarahFrom Blood to Genes? Rethinking Consanguinity in the Context of Geneticization,” in Johnson, Christopher H. et al. , eds., Blood and Kinship: Matter for Metaphor from Ancient Rome to the Present (Berghahn Books, 2013), 285320. See also works in the new kinship studies: e.g., Franklin, Sarah and McKinnon, Susan, eds., Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies (Duke University Press, 2001); Carsten, Janet, ed., 2000, Cultures of Relatedness: New Approaches to the Study of Kinship (Cambridge University Press, 2000); and especially Carsten, Janet, Blood Work: Life and Laboratories in Penang (Duke University Press, 2019).

33 Greenhalgh, Trisha and Wieringa, Sietse, “Is It Time to Drop the ‘Knowledge Translation’ Metaphor?Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 104 (2011): 501–9.

34 Jenny Croft, “Organisation of the Day's Business,” Nov. 1983, file FPS 15/4, vol. 4, “Inquiry into Human Fertilisation: Papers for Meetings,” Department of Health Repository, Burnley, Lancashire.

37 Warnock, Question of Life, vii.

38 A proposal to fund IVF and human embryo research from Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, submitted to the Medical Research Council in 1971, was not funded since the research was considered ethically uncertain. Johnson, Martin H. et al. , “Why the Medical Research Council Refused Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe Support for Research on Human Conception in 1971,” Human Reproduction 25 (2010): 2157–74.

39 Paper 57, “Experiments on Embryos: Key Questions.”

40 Many issues discussed in Paper 57 were agreed upon at the Inquiry's second meeting, in November 1982, at which both Anne McLaren and the MRC gave presentations on IVF and embryo research (Warnock, Nature & Morality).

41 “Experiments on Embryos,” 2–3.

42 Paper 59, “Research on Human Embryos In Vitro,” Department of Health, Burnley file FPS 15/3, vol. 3, p. 7.

43 Ibid., 1.

44 Ibid., 1.

45 Ibid., 7.

46 Ibid., 2.

47 Ibid., 3.

48 Ibid., 7.

49 Ibid., 8.

50 Ibid., 8.

51 The term “toti potential capacity” would have been well established within the specialist community of developmental biologists, but rarely used outside of it. Now more commonly referred to as “totipotency,” this capacity has become more familiar to wider audiences in the context of debates over stem cell research.

52 Paper 59, “Research on Human Embryos In Vitro,” 8.

53 Ibid., 8.

56 The question of who prepared Annex A is complicated by divergences of its terminology (“disc” versus “plate”), the hybrid nature of its composition (cut-out images from a textbook), and its seemingly hurried composition (using ball point pen and white-out correction fluid). It is probably based on McLaren's missing discussion paper but drawn by someone else (the handwriting is not McLaren's). When I contacted Metters about the diagram in 2016, he could not recall its source.

57 Paper 59, Annex A, p. 8. Stage 12 in the diagram is not labeled “the embryo proper,” but that is the name the embryonic plate, or disc, has implicitly acquired, and it appears in the crucial section of the Warnock Report written by McLaren, “Early Human Development,” in the chapter “Scientific Issues” (Warnock, Question of Life).

58 Paper 59, 3.

59 Paper 57, 1.

60 Minutes of the eleventh meeting, on 13 Oct. 1983, p. 5.

61 Although McLaren's paper “Where to Draw the Line?” is recorded as having been tabled in the October meeting minutes, the List of Papers for that meeting does not mention it, and it may have been tabled earlier in the Inquiry (the use of the past perfect progressive tense in the minutes makes the timing of this unclear, and, again, it is curious that no copy has been found among the Warnock files or other archives).

62 Reference is also made to “a discussion paper by Dr McLaren” prepared for the 9 November 1983 meeting, in a confidential note from J. E. Box dated 25 Oct. 1983 (file D 409/191, found in the TNA MRC FD7 series).

63 “Warnock Inquiry: October Meeting,” memo from Jenny Croft, 17 Oct. 1983.

64 In her publication Where to Draw the Line?” (Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain 56 (1984): 101–21), McLaren distinguishes between the “early embryo,” for which “the term pre-embryo is sometimes used,” and the “definitive embryo,” which emerges after two to three weeks (106, her emphasis). Using these terms, she argues, we can indeed identify the “uniqueness” that results from “new genetic material” which establishes “individuality” (ibid., 107). Only after fertilization is “a genetic constitution of one or more adult human beings” established, thus comprising an “important landmark,” but the “definitive embryo” does not begin to develop until the embryonic plate is formed in the post-implantation embryo (ibid.). For further discussion of this argument's role in the Warnock Committee, see Wilson, Making of British Bioethics, esp. ch. 4.

65 Interviewed in November 2016 about the missing McLaren paper and the diagram in Annex A, Metters could not recall who had prepared that document. A May 2018 interview with Warnock confirmed her longstanding view that McLaren's main contribution to defining the stages of post-fertilization development came in a detailed and memorable presentation to the Committee a year earlier, at their second meeting, in November 1982. The detailed minutes of that meeting make no reference to this presentation, perhaps because they generally do not record contributions by individual members. See Warnock, Nature & Morality, 93–97.

66 Wilson, Making of British Bioethics.

67 “Preparations for Meetings,” FPS 15/3 Department of Health, Burnley.

68 Jenny Croft, “Chairman's Brief,” Nov. 1983.

69 “Defining the Limits for Research,” FPS 14/4, vol. 4, Department of Health, Burnley.

70 Croft internal memo, “Warnock Inquiry: November Meeting,” 11 Nov. 1983, her emphasis.

71 Croft letter to Woolridge, 11 Nov. 1983.

72 Paper 64, 1–2.

73 Minutes of the “Thirteenth Meeting of the Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology,” 8 Dec. 1983.

74 Warnock, Mary, “Anne McLaren as Teacher,” International Journal of Developmental Biology 45, 3 (2001): 487-90, 488.

75 Ibid., 488, 490.

76 Martin Johnson and Sarah Franklin interview with Mary Warnock, Feb. 2008, British Library Oral History Collection.

77 Martin Johnson and Sarah Franklin interview with Jenny Croft, 19 Mar. 2008, British Library Oral History Collection.

79 See Wilson, Making of British Bioethics, chapter 4, for a detailed account of the vociferous critiques of the fourteen-day rule, especially just after the Warnock Report's publication.

80 Jasanoff, Sheila and Metzler, Ingrid, “Borderlands of Life: IVF Embryos and the Law in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany,” Science, Technology and Human Values 43, 1 (2018): 137.

81 Ibid., 16, references removed.

82 Thompson, Charis, Good Science: The Ethical Choreography of Stem Cell Research (MIT Press, 2013).

83 Warnock, Nature & Morality, 99. For a fascinating discussion of gendered cultures of science by one of Warnock's and McLaren's most observant contemporary feminist science studies scholars, see Rose, Hilary, “Hand, Brain, and Heart: A Feminist Epistemology for the Natural Sciences,” Signs 9, 1 (1983): 7390.


Developmental Landmarks and the Warnock Report: A Sociological Account of Biological Translation

  • Sarah Franklin (a1)


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