I am a member of the Oxford Law Faculty (where I am a Visiting Professor), a Senior Research Associate at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics (part of the Faculty of Philosophy), a Research Associate at the Ethox Centre (a multidisciplinary bioethics research centre within the Nuffield Department of Public Health, University of Oxford), a Research Associate at the Health, Law and Emerging Technologies Centre, (part of the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford), and an Associate at the Oxford Human Rights Hub. I am also a barrister, practising at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square (where I specialize in medical law) and a part time judge of the Crown Court (where I am authorized to try serious sexual offences) and the County Court. I joined Exeter College as a Supernumerary Fellow in 2022.
My PhD is from the University of Cambridge for work on the way that the law handles human autonomy and dignity in medical decision-making.
My research is a search for a satisfactory legal anthropology. I am concerned that we make decisions crucially affecting human welfare without having any real idea what sort of creatures we are. In the search for answers that will do real legal work I take cross-bearings from many perspectives and disciplines, including biology (I am particularly concerned with the moral status of non-human animals and what that status can tell us about our own status), moral philosophy, epistemology, neuroethics, and theology. I have concentrated my search in the field of medical law and ethics, and have written extensively about issues such as identity and personhood, the importance and limitation of the principle of autonomy, the meaning and use of the notion of human dignity, and the use of intuitions in moral and legal reasoning.
At the Bar I have been involved in some of the key cases in medical law, including the challenge in the European Court of Human Rights to the Belgian law of euthanasia (Mortier v Belgium), the Supreme Court’s review of the requirement for court endorsement of the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from patients in prolonged disorders of consciousness (An NHS Trust v Y, 2018), the assisted suicide litigation in the Supreme Court (Nicklinson v Ministry of Justice, 2014), and the House of Lords (Purdy v DPP, 2009); the first prosecution of a doctor under the Female Genital Mutilation Act (R v Dharmasena 2015); Kadir v Mistry (2014) (principles governing the recoverability of damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenity in cases of delayed diagnosis); CP v The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (2014) (can a child in utero be the victim of a crime for the purposes of the CICA jurisdiction?); NHS Trust A v MB (a child) and Mr and Mrs B. (2006) (attempt by NHS Trust to withdraw life-sustaining artificial ventilation from a child with Spinal Muscular Atrophy); Al Hamwi v Johnston and North West London Hospitals NHS Trust (2005) (extent of clinician’s obligation to ensure that patient had understood warning about risks of amniocentesis); Halsey v Milton Keynes NHS Trust: Steel v Joy (2004) (effect on costs of a refusal to mediate); Kataria v Essex Strategic Health Authority (2004) (meaning of ‘review’; R v Chief Constable of West Mercia ex p Jepson (2003): Judicial review of police decision not to prosecute for late abortion of a child with cleft lip/palate; Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust v As, Bs and others (2003) (who is the father where the wrong embryo is implanted into a woman as a result of an IVF mix-up? The biological father or the husband of the woman?
I do a good deal of writing that would be classified as non-academic (although I don’t acknowledge any significant distinction between academic and non-academic writing). A recent example is Being a Beast, which is a New York Times Bestseller, was long-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize (the ‘non-fiction Booker’) and the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, won the Deux Millions d’Amis literary prize (France), and the IgNobel prize for Biology in 2016.
That book, like most of my other non-academic writing, explores themes directly pertinent to my academic research (such as: Are humans special? How plastic is our identity? Can we know enough about the world to be able to make informed decisions?)
A sequel, Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 years of consciousness (2021) examines three seismic epochs in the history of consciousness: the Upper Palaeolithic, the Neolithic and the Enlightenment.
My book The Screaming Sky (Little Toller, 2021) was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize.
Recent and forthcoming books include a novel which seeks to recruit the voices of non-humans in telling a human story (Little Brown Sea, 2022), a book of short stories (The Cry of the Wild: Tales of sea, woods and hill, forthcoming: Doubleday/Penguin) which illustrates the challenges faced by various non-human species of living alongside us, an examination of contemporary apostasy (Faiths Lost and Found (with Martyn Percy): forthcoming: Darton Longman and Todd), and a study of the science and law of human/wildlife conflict (When animals and humans clash (with John Cooper): forthcoming: Taylor & Francis).
I contribute to many publications, including the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Times, and the Literary Review.