Task Force on Life and the Law


Established in 1985 by Governor Mario Cuomo, the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law ("Task Force") consists of 23 Governor-appointed experts who volunteer their time to assist the State in developing public policy on issues arising at the interface of medicine, law, and ethics. The Task Force is comprised of leaders in the fields of religion, philosophy, law, medicine, nursing, and bioethics, and is chaired by New York State's Commissioner of Health. The Task Force has produced influential reports on cutting-edge bioethics issues, including the withholding and withdrawing of life-sustaining treatment, assisted reproductive technologies, organ transplantation, dietary supplements, assisted suicide, genetic testing, and the allocation of ventilators in an influenza pandemic.

Legislation and Regulation

Ten of the Task Force's recommendations have been adopted as legislation or regulation in New York, and have impacted greatly the delivery of health care in this state. The enactments encompass the determination of death, do-not-resuscitate ("DNR") orders, health care proxies, organ and tissue transplantation, genetic testing, assisted reproductive technology, surrogate parenting, and palliative care. In 2010, the State Legislature passed the Family Health Care Decisions Act ("FHCDA"), which establishes a statutory framework for surrogate consent to health care for patients who lack decision-making capacity, and was modeled on the Task Force's report, When Others Must Choose: Deciding for Patients Without Capacity. Most recently, the Legislature amended the FHCDA to authorize surrogate decision-making for hospice care, based on a recommendation by the Task Force. In addition, other states, including Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Vermont, have embraced the Task Force's recommendations as models for legislation.

Impact on Court Decisions

The Task Force's reports have been cited in a number of seminal federal and state court decisions. The United States Supreme Court's 1997 opinions of Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill referred to the Task Force's report on physician-assisted suicide more than thirty times. In addition, the same report was cited extensively in a Florida Supreme Court decision in Krischer v. McIver.

Task Force reports on reproductive technology have also been incorporated into court decisions. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit relied on a Task Force report on fetal extrauterine survivability. The California Supreme Court quoted significantly the Task Force's report on surrogate parenting in Johnson v. Calvert. In the New York Court of Appeals decision of Kass v. Kass, a landmark case regarding the custody of frozen embryos created prior to the couple's divorce, the opinion drew on a report by the Task Force on assisted reproductive technology. In a similar case, JB v. MB, the New Jersey Supreme Court also cited to the same Task Force report in its opinion.

Contribution to the Academic Literature

Task Force reports are referenced frequently in medical, legal, and social science literature, and appear often in the curricula of medical ethics, law, and public policy courses. The work of the Task Force and its members has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), The Hastings Center Report, The Journal of Clinical Ethics, The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, The American Journal of Bioethics, and a variety of other peer-reviewed publications.

Speaking Engagements

The Task Force is a visible entity in the bioethics and policy spheres with its members and staff featured as speakers at professional conferences and organizations. Recent presentations have been made for the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics, the New York Academy of Medicine, the White House Conference on Aging and Developmental Disabilities, the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, the American Medical Association, the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, the Institute of Medicine, and New York City and State Bar Associations.

20th Anniversary Symposium

In celebration of the Task Force's 20th anniversary, the "Bioethics and Public Policy Initiatives: Celebrating the Past and Building the Future" symposium was held on March 3, 2005. The event was funded by a generous grant from the Greenwall Foundation.