The Crimson Birthmark

William Safire, New York Times, January 21, 2002.


he novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne took a crack at the troubling ”Frankenstein” theme of man’s presumption to gain godly power in an 1843 short story, ”The Birthmark.”

A scientist-philosopher, obsessed by a small hand-shaped birthmark on the cheek of his beautiful wife — ”a crimson stain upon the snow” — treats her with a potent elixir to ”correct what Nature left imperfect,” and thereby kills the one he loves.

That cautionary tale was required reading for 17 leading scientists and philosophers at last week’s first monthly convocation of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. They are to explore the opportunities to prolong life and alleviate suffering — and to weigh them against the potential dangers to individual dignity and personal freedom — in this genetics generation’s reach for human perfectibility.

New York Times