Letter from Thessaloniki

That was a tough speech the professor of obstetrics at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Ioannis Bonnis, had to give the other day at the Second Panhellenic Conference of the Greek Fertility and Impotence Association, held here over the weekend. Greece, he announced accusingly, has the highest rate of abortion, both when compared to other European countries and to the United States. Furthermore, at the same conference, the following picture emerged that looks set to define Greece’s future: According to statistics during the 1980-1999 period, fertility in Greece has dropped by 41 percent! This is twice the percentage decrease in the rest of Europe, while the USA had an increase of 14 percent in its fertility rate during the same period. Predictably, sociologists believe that within a few years, one out of four families will have only one child. Among the educated, the young and the rich, the desire to have children is in terminal decline. Traditionally, the real poor and immigrants get scant attention from the State and sociologists alike. It is Dr Bonnis’s contention that the soaring number of abortions being carried out, both before and after marriage, not only brings the risk of serious complications in women’s health, but is also the main reason for the very low birthrate in Greece. According to surgeons that carry out abortions, 40 percent of the decrease in women’s fertility is due to abortions. It is not just idle supposition that approximately 150,000 couples in Greece are unable to have children because the woman has had at least one abortion in her history. There are more than 250,000 abortions a year, 40,000 of which are conducted on young girls under the age of 16. Worse, it has been estimated that at least one third of the married women would have avoided abortions if they could have afforded to support a larger family. Partly for this reason, «about 150,000 couples in Greece cannot have children because of at least one abortion in the past, when they did not earn enough to keep the children.» Because it is a life-and-death issue which many people – mainly outside Greece, it seems – feel passionate about, one sees two groups of people dominating this issue; the «pro-life» and the «pro-choice» factions. The second prevails in Greece. Greek feminists have made easy access to abortion the very symbol of liberation for women, referring to it as «the most fundamental right of women.» Greeks regard the issue with insouciance. Unlike Western Europe, there is hardly any picketing outside local pregnancy advisory services and abortion counselors – since such public institutions are almost unknown here. Although the Greek government significantly liberalized the performance of abortions by Law No 1609 of June 28, 1986, our Orthodox Church persists in considering abortion a crime. However, religious tenets cannot, as is inevitable, influence legislation and attitudes in Greece any more than they did back in the 1950s. Serving up the required pieties, the modern Greek Orthodox Church laid rancor aside on the abortion issue and in a rare case found that «that which unites us is greater than that which divides us» as regards its relationship with the Vatican. Apparently firmly of the belief that a crusade calls for a cause, although not yet making the abortion issue his battle cry, Archbishop Christodoulos stated in an interview some months ago that «political parties should clarify their stance on abortions, drugs, organ transplants and in-vitro fertilization.» However, since polls are not due until the spring of 2004, no party has reacted to this yet. Nevertheless, some people, not necessarily anti-abortionists, have calculated that by the time today’s babies are going through their mid-life crisis, a quarter of the population will be over 65 – 25 percent of Greeks by 2040 – if the birthrate maintains its downhill course, as the Greek Fertility and Impotence Association warned yesterday. Furthermore, a very relaxed attitude to contraception among Greek couples results in a considerable part of those estimated 250,000 abortions a year. No more than 2.5 percent of Greek women of child-bearing age use contraceptive pills, in contrast to the EU average of 60 percent. On the other hand, liberals and progressives react with anger to all sorts of moralistic outbursts on the intimate matters of the bedroom and religion. By and large, tolerance has marked, up to now, situations where abortions seemed acceptable. Should that change?

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