April 13, 2024

Mario Cuomo, bioethicist

A tough politician, he also influenced debates on abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia.

Three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo was a skilled politician who almost ran for President and almost sat on the Supreme Court. He was an eloquent spokesman for the liberal strain of American politics, defending the little guy and big government. But he also exerted a great influence on US bioethics debates.

On abortion. Although he was proud to be a Catholic, he supported a woman’s right to choose. In 1984 he gave a speech at Notre Dame University in which he argued that a politician who was personally opposed to abortion could, in good conscience, vote for a law which permitted it. “Approval or rejection of legal restrictions on abortion should not be the exclusive litmus test of Catholic loyalty,” Cuomo stated in his address at Notre Dame. “We should understand that whether abortion is outlawed or not, our work has barely begun: the work of creating a society where the right to life doesn’t end at the moment of birth; where an infant isn’t helped into a world that doesn’t care if it’s fed properly, housed decently, educated adequately.”

On the death penalty. He was a resolute opponent of capital punishment, a stand which nearly cost him the governorship.

On end-of-life issues. In 1985 Cuomo set up the New York state biomedical Task Force on Life and the Law,  23 experts who assist the State in developing public policy on issues arising at the interface of medicine, law, and ethics. Its reports have been cited in a number of important federal and state court decisions. One report eventually established irreversible brain stem damage as the criterion for death. It also opposed the legalisation of euthanasia.

“No matter how carefully any guidelines are framed, assisted suicide and euthanasia will be practiced through the prism of social inequality and bias that characterizes the delivery of services in all segments of our society, including health care. The practices will pose the greatest risks to those who are poor, elderly, members of a minority group, or without access to good medical care. The growing concern about health care costs increases the risks presented by legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia. This cost consciousness will not be diminished, and may well be exacerbated, by health care reform.”

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