Leonard Zwelling

It felt noble to be a purist. In my case, it was strict adherence to the Code of Federal Regulations that governed the performance of what the government calls human subjects research and most of us call clinical research—research using humans or human tissues. I oversaw the infrastructure for this activity from 1995 to 2004 at MD Anderson. Now it was indeed my job to make sure that the systems established by the Belmont Report in the late 1970s and all FDA rules were followed by the faculty and staff performing clinical research at MD Anderson. But…

Clinical research is the hardest research of all to do. Human diseases like cancer are protean. People with cancer are not inbred mice with laboratory-induced tumors. Also, not only the human subjects are human. So are the clinical investigators. As such these investigators make mistakes. They are under massive pressure to both adhere to the federal research rules and care for sick people with cancer. This is a major challenge. When it went off the rails—as it often did—I should have been more forgiving than I tended to be. I was insufficiently tolerant.

I can make up many excuses for my rigidity. None really work. In the complex world of cancer clinical investigation, while rules must be followed, some leeway also needs to be introduced into the mix. I tended not to have much leeway and at the height of my power as a vice president, I was way too autocratic for a host of reasons. None seem to matter much now.

This has all come to mind lately as the current Supreme Court seems to be adhering to a strict interpretation of the rules set out in a document in 1789, the US Constitution. Surely the all-white, all-male Framers were writing in their own time of their own time and given their unique intelligence and foresight, I suspect they would be appalled to see their words manipulated in the fashion the current Court has done to deny guaranteed access to safe and legal abortion and to overturn a New York law that aims to keep New Yorkers safe from gun violence.

My point is a simple one. All politicians and judges need to be acting for the good of the people in 2022. These decisions by the conservative majority court do not do this. This is bad for the people. Even if Clarence Thomas is right and most gun owners are law abiding citizens, that still leaves millions of gun owners who aren’t and 300 hundred million of us susceptible to their violence.

As for abortion, this blog has repeatedly made its thoughts clear—legal, safe and rare–and even if reality indicates rare is not likely, I’ll take two out of three.

The current Supreme Court is made up of strict Constitutionalists who really don’t care what the effects of their actions are on normal Americans. Where the Court feels abortion is an issue for the states, New York State’s gun law is not because abortion is not mentioned in the Constitution, but arms bearing is. The Court thinks abortion is not a Constitutional right and gun ownership of any kind without restrictions is. Good for them. Bad for us.

Shame on the Supreme Court for thinking it can operate in a vacuum. It was wrong when I did it. It’s wrong now.

In human endeavors, purists usually are wrong. Humans are far more fallible than a purist can tolerate. Human fallibility has never been on greater display than when five Republican appointed justices undid the will of the people. Who knows what they’ll do next?

2 thoughts on “Purist”

  1. This is such an important reflection on the “formal legalism” (Purist view) that the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes addressed over a century ago. He believed that the law had to be contextual for the modern times and reflect the collective responsibility for the common good. The current Court does not contain many members who have had much “real life” experiences, e.g. military service, Public Health Service, Peace Corps, local prosecutors/defendants, Planned Parenthood. ACLU, etc. So, we are stuck with “Generals” who have never been to war but have read all the rules of warfare that are not in tune with the times.
    The alternative will be to elect moderate legislators who will pass some laws to protect the rights of ALL. That will be challenge of this fall’s Congressional election and the 2024 Presidential contest.

    1. Leonard Zwelling

      Exactly. If the legislature (Congress) steps up, the Supreme Court will be a lot less important. LZ

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