Bioethicist Luke Gormally: The ‘Gentle Giant’ Who Stood Up Against the Culture of Death

Gormally, who died at the end of April, was a towering pro-life figure in the English-speaking world for over half a century.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher chats with professor Luke Gormally in the 1980s.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher chats with professor Luke Gormally in the 1980s. (photo: Courtesy photo)

OXFORD, England — Professor Luke Gormally, who died April 30 at the age of 83, was a towering figure who was respected and admired for his personal integrity, courage and tireless defense of life at a time when the “culture of death” was taking root in the West. 

A former governor, director and senior research fellow at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre — an Oxford-based Catholic institute formerly known as the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics — for more than half a century, Gormally was a leading pro-life voice in bioethics in the English-speaking world. 

Almost immediately after being appointed as a researcher at the Linacre Centre in 1978, he became “the intellectual substance of the activities and achievements of the small staff,” recalled Australian legal philosopher professor John Finnis, who served as the center’s governor in the 1980s. 

The center’s governing body, Finnis said, was “always rightly dependent on Luke’s good judgment and willingness to get things done,” whether it was liaising with donors, bishops or medical professionals that would then bear fruit in a growing network of cooperation at home and abroad. 

Much of his work at the center was dedicated to advising Parliament and British and Irish bishops on life issues, whether that involved protecting unborn life and speaking out against abortion, euthanasia and artificial contraception. 

He served nearly 20 years as the center’s director until 2000 and then as governor from 2011 to 2016, following its relocation to Oxford and renaming as the Anscombe Centre, after the famous British pro-life analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001). 

Gormally’s wife, Mary Geach, was a daughter of Anscombe, and after his retirement in 2007, the couple worked successfully to bring Anscombe’s lesser-known works to greater prominence. Residents of London, the Gormallys were closely involved with the Neocatechumenal Way. 

In the 1980s, Gormally inspired the center’s current director, professor David Albert Jones, to enter the bioethics field, which has since become his life’s work. 

“Luke was modest about his own abilities and saw himself as a workman laboring in a field where people urgently needed ethical guidance,” Jones told the Register.

He shaped the center’s mission, Jones said, and his advice was often sought “on subtle ethical problems facing the world and the Church.” In his writings, he said, “he kept returning to the fundamental questions of human life, human dignity and the meaning of medicine.”  

“[He was] not larger than life but as large as life, a defender of life and a pillar both of religious and of academic integrity,” Jones recalled. “He spoke slowly. He thought deeply. He was a man of intellectual and moral integrity on whom one could depend. He was a witness to the stability and endurance of the most profound truths even in a field, bioethics, which has seen dizzying changes.”


Pontifical Academy for Life Member

As well as serving as a research professor at Ave Maria School of Law, then located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 2000s, Gormally was also a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life from 1996 to 2016. 

Dr. Thomas Ward, who served concurrently as a member of the pontifical academy, remembered the English bioethicist as “a very wise judge and guide.” He recalled Gormally’s willingness to vigorously defend life on several occasions within the academy, such as the controversial Recife case in 2009. 

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, then the academy’s president, showed sympathy for doctors involved in an especially tragic abortion case in Brazil, undercutting the authority of the local bishop, who had said the physicians would incur excommunication for their actions. 

“Luke was very brave in contributing leadership to opposing this [sympathy to the doctors] in the academy,” Ward said. “He was always willing to speak up; he was blunt, to the point. He was totally faithful to the Church.” 

He remembered Gormally once assertively saying to Pope Francis at an audience, “We expect you to defend life.” And he became increasingly disillusioned with the academy’s leadership after the departure of its president, Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, in 2008, and firmly believed its membership should only comprise “Catholics faithful to the Church’s authoritative teaching.”

In comments to the Register in 2017, Gormally described the appointment of a new academy member, professor Nigel Biggar, an Anglican who supported abortion in some limited circumstances, as “shocking” and revealed that Biggar had no moral objection in principle to euthanizing some people, based on what he had written in 2004. 

After these and other controversial changes, he believed that Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the academy’s current president, would be removed from office “if things were rightly ordered,” as he said “aspects of his witness are at odds with the Church’s teachings on chastity, marriage and the family.” 

That same year, Gormally also spoke out about the case of Charlie Gard, whose parents were engaged in a battle with Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and English courts over providing experimental but possibly lifesaving treatment for their infant son. A High Court judge ruled against the parents, ordering that the 11-month-old’s life support should be switched off so he could “die with dignity.” Deprived of life support, the child died the next day.

Gormally told the Register that parental choices should only be over-ridden if parents are shown to be seriously hostile to the interests of a child, adding that this case was “part of the larger picture of the subversion of parental authority.”


‘Shot From the Hip’

“Luke shot from the hip,” Ward said. “He was a very tall man, making him physically and intellectually really pretty dominant.”  

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, who worked closely with the professor at the Linacre Centre in the 1990s, while studying for a doctorate at Oxford University, said “he was the biggest man I ever knew,” and that when he came into a room, “he completely dominated it because of his scale — he would have made George Pell look short.” 

But he added that, as giants go, “he was a pretty gentle giant; obviously had a great intellect,” Archbishop Fisher said. “Whether it was the match for his wife, I don’t know, as both were serious philosophers.”

Edmund Adamus, secretary to the Commission of Inquiry Into Discrimination Against Christians in the U.K., worked with the professor several times and fondly recalls sharing a platform with him at a conference on the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 2008, when Gormally generously gave him the floor to take questions on natural fertility awareness and growing risks of hormonal contraception to female health. 

“I was most definitely standing on the shoulders of a giant, speaking alongside Luke,” said Adamus, who is also education consultant to the U.K. charity Fertile Heart. “He was truly a ‘good son of the Church’” who joins “other illustrious defenders of life and the family,” such as the late Belgian Jesuit Msgr. Michel Schooyans and the late Father Dermot Fenlon, an expert on St. John Henry Newman.

Finnis told the Register it was thanks to Gormally that the Anscombe Centre turned away from the dissenting currents against Humanae Vitae, and he praised him for his hard work in staging a “highly successful” series of summer conferences on bioethics in Cambridge in the late 1990s and early 2000s that each “yielded substantial books.”

Noting his courage, realism, candor and zeal in corresponding with prelates often in “deeply discouraging circumstances,” Finnis said English Catholicism after 1980 “would have been very notably weaker but for his presence and his faith and works.”

Archbishop Fisher praised him for being “very evangelical and concerned about passing the faith on to the next generation.” 

The late English bioethicist, Jones said, was a man of “great integrity and humility,” someone who “not only wrote about the virtues but embodied them.”