Revisiting the Warnock Committee
When I became a research associate with ReproSoc in October, it felt like embarking on a new and exciting journey. From my previous experience working with Sarah Franklin, I expected that this intellectual and professional journey would get me thinking not only about the important effects that IVF and other reproductive technologies have had, and are continuing to have, on the way we think about life itself, but also to see new, and probably strange, connections in the world around me.
What I hadn't foreseen was that the first actual journey that I would embark upon in this role would be to Burnley, Lancashire. But in fact, there are various reasons why this journey and destination are apt. In 1978 the world's first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in Oldham, less than thirty miles from Burnley, and it happened thanks to years of repeated trips between Cambridge and Oldham made by Robert Edwards and Jean Purdy to work with Patrick Steptoe in his hospital, each one bringing them a little closer to the time when they would help Louise Brown's mother Lesley to become pregnant. And, just visible from inside the office I was visiting is a road-sign pointing the way to Bacup, a small nearby town which was the site of Jeanette Edwards' influential ethnographic study of ordinary people's attitudes to assisted reproductive technologies (ART), Born and Bred.
Coming to work at Cambridge has been, for me, a homecoming as I was born and bred here and as I settle into my new role on the 'gown' side of the city, I am learning to overlay this new geography onto the Cambridge I know by second nature. Four years after Louise Brown's birth and a few weeks after mine (although I was conceived 'conventionally', both Louise and I were born by caesarean section), the British government established a Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, chaired by Baroness Mary Warnock. Its report provided the blueprint for British regulation of ART and embryological research and has informed many other countries' own regulatory deliberations on these matters.
My reason for travelling to Burnley this month was to visit the Department of Health's archives, to see the original files from the Warnock Committee and its lengthy gestation through Parliament until the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was finally passed in 1990. The Warnock Committee was so successful at navigating the difficult moral terrain of these issues that the law that regulates assisted conception and embryo research remains largely intact to this day. The same cannot be said for the archives, however. The Warnock files were ordered to be kept in the Department of Health Archives for 25 years, due to their historical importance. After this time, they are offered to The National Archives (TNA); what they reject is usually then destroyed. Sadly, many of the original files relating to the establishment and running of the Committee have, through this review process, already been destroyed.
The files that I did see in Burnley provide a fascinating insight into parliamentary process, the years of back and forth between civil servants and ministers as they gathered together the evidence they needed to make a law that would be acceptable to both Houses of Parliament, and by implication, most British people. The papers include the nitty-gritty of deliberations about how to put a legal definition on the very beginnings of life. There are handwritten letters from the public to Margaret Thatcher and Kenneth Clarke, the then Prime Minister and Health Secretary respectively, outlining their own experiences of infertility or, on the other side of the embryo research debate, their revulsion at what they saw as the wanton destruction of children's lives. They include amusing asides on spelling mix-ups between civil servants, such as a mis-spelling of 'semen' that gave one letter an accidentally nautical feel and an internal discussion about whether to put an 'o' in 'foetus'. The files also include many press cuttings, charting the ups and downs of how these matters were portrayed and received in the late 1980s.
For me, and for my colleagues in ReproSoc, these archives are a chance to understand the fine details of how decisions about how to regulate fertilisation and embryology in this country were made, to see the changing nature and status of the embryo as, having become publicly visible, it emerged as a key player in the discourse of laypeople and politicians and to see what part different rhetorical approaches and didactic strategies played in convincing doubters of the morality of these techniques.
This archival research feels a little like detective work anyway, but given the wave of destruction that has preceded my entrance on the scene, it seems like this is a case of trying to prevent any more bodies piling up; this has an added urgency as many of the surviving files are up for review next year and the year after. My next journey, less far afield, will be to TNA in Kew, to see what survived the axeman's blade.