Oxford student stab case ruling sets new precedent linking biology and law

The Oxford University student whose “extraordinary talent” for medicine means that she could be spared jail for unlawful wounding is the first of its kind — and almost certainly not the last.

The Lavinia Woodward ruling suggests that the principle that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law can be suspended in exceptional circumstances. Judge Ian Pringle deferred sentencing for four months and said that “normally” such a case would result in a jail term.

“It seems to me that if this was a one-off,” he said, “a complete one-off, to prevent this extraordinary able young lady from not following her long-held desire to enter the profession she wishes to, would be a sentence which would be too severe.”

Now no one really wants an aspiring heart surgeon to be languishing in jail unless she represents a continuing danger to the public and the incident appears to have been a one-off involving a Tinder-based liaison between the Oxford University student and a University of Cambridge PhD student. A colourful one-off, for sure, but unlikely to be repeated.

However the case still sets something of a precedent and will be invoked again by lawyers seeking to get their clients off the hook. And initially at least, those clients will be wealthy enough to afford expensive legal advice and, perhaps, there will be other markers which differentiate their cases from the rest of the population — markers which the legal profession will be happy to highlight as “extraordinary” too.

It was always going to be the case that, following the unravelling of the human genome in 20011, the genetic haves and genetic have-nots would at some stage be differentiated in the eyes of the law but, now that it has happened, a discussion about how to proceed could do worse than build on the comments made by Yuval Noah Harari in his best-selling “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”.

“A huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latter findings of the life sciences,” Harari writes, “a gulf we cannot ignore much longer. Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority…. Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will — the same forces that determine the behaviour of chimpanzees, wolves and ants. Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the department of law and political science?”

It would seem the wall has a door in it, and the key has now been turned in the lock. What will we find on the other side? If the legal system now accepts that genetics plays a part in the way a crime is assessed then perhaps we shouldn’t be too shocked, but rather ask a few follow-up questions, such as what should we use our fast-improving knowledge of genetics for? Should we try to cure cancer, create a new race of superhumans, rejig the genetic clock so to make ourselves a-mortal (so we’d never die from natural causes, only from accidents)?

It’s possible that gene therapy could turn off the markers for Alzheimer’s, or cancer, or arthritis. But which path will we choose? If market forces have anything to do with it — and they do — science will probably come up with a way of reversing the ageing process… for a price. Which in all likelihood means another 200 years of Kim Kardashian — someone who also, by the way, has “extraordinary talent”.