Modern mothers in Greece

As part of her published anthropological study involving middle-classAthenian women aged between 20 and 70, Heather Paxson discusses the decliningbirthrate in Greece and sheds light on reproductive politics and the changingrole of women in urban Greece


Greece's birthrate is among the lowest worldwide

From 1993 to 1995, anthropologist Heather Paxson conducted fieldwork for the anthropological study that became Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece (University of California Press, 2004).

In this book Paxson investigates reproductive politics and the changing role of women in urban Greece, based on interviews with middle-class women in Athens and meetings with Greek psychologists, gynaecologists, midwives, demographers, family-planning counsellors and politicians, among others.

In the 1990s, when Paxson conducted her study, Greece allegedly had the lowest birthrate and the highest incidence of abortion in the EU. Ten years after her study, the annual birthrate has not increased (though other European birthrates have also declined). According to UN estimates, fewer than 10 in 1,000 women (or 1 percent) will give birth in Greece this year, placing Greece's birthrate among the lowest worldwide.

"Do Greek women want to be mothers?" Paxson asked 38 Athenian women. They ranged in age from 20 to 70, and most lived in the central Athens suburb of Pangrati. She interviewed these women about "their reproductive histories, experiences with contraception, [...] attitudes towards Greek family dynamics, opinions about abortion and state family policies and the changing texture of everyday life in Athens".

From their testimonies, she concludes that Greek women in Athens do want to be mothers. Regardless of age, most Greek women interviewed said that a woman "fulfilled her nature" by becoming a mother. "Being a mother remains an important status marker in Greece," Paxson says. But, according to this study, Greek women also believe it is a woman's ethical responsibility to be a 'good mother', and if a woman cannot be a 'good mother' they believe it is her ethical responsibility not to bring a child into the world.

Practical ethics is a central theme in Making Modern Mothers. A sub-theme is women's ability to control reproduction and how they use it. Paxson's study opens with a theoretical chapter on these ideas. The remainder of the book is divided into successive, more fact-based chapters on the history of abortion, organised family planning and sex education, pro-natalist population policies and imported medical technologies such as in vitro fertilisation.

The women who participated in the study present their own analysis of these issues, and the "social baggage" Greek women bring to motherhood. The anthropologist then picks up their analysis and places it in the context of political debates and institutionalised views. Paxson incorporates media-advertising images, excerpts from reports distributed by government ministries and the literature of the privately funded Family Planning Association of Greece (FPAG). Her study also builds on the rich literature of ethnography in Greece.

Heather Paxson first decided to study Greece as a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Stanford University in the early 1990s, she told me in an interview. She was studying gender and kinship, and while reading the work of John Campbell and Ernestine Friedl, both of whom studied peasant and rural Greece in the 1960s, she noticed frequent footnotes about abortion. No anthropologist had investigated birth control and abortion in urban Greece. Paxson received a research grant to conduct her study in 1993.

Upon arriving in Athens, she was told by physicians and FPAG counsellors that "over 300,000 abortions were performed in Greece a year - or two to three times the live birthrate". It is difficult to verify this figure as so few abortions are registered. What interested Paxson was how abortion had became "routine" in urban Greece, and "how young women in Greece expected to do it".

She traced this attitude to the 1950s, when there was a need to have fewer children after the German occupation and the civil war, and informally abortion became something people knew they could do. Later, women began getting abortions at younger ages. Contraception and abortion were legalised by parliament in the 1980s but, according to Paxson, abortion was such a socially accepted practice by that time that people didn't know it had been illegal.

"It's the double medical system in Greece that contributes to this," Paxson told me. "It's a very discrete procedure. Women go to private practices for abortions, not public hospitals. It's part of the accepted 'second way' of doing things in Greece."

Greek social scientists have accused Greeks of trivialising abortion, and of "using it as a method of birth control". Interestingly, Paxson defends Greek women against this accusation, arguing that they see abortion as "a necessary evil" and that it often becomes necessary in the absence of education on preventative contraception.

While the Greek government (both Pasok and New Democracy) has conducted pro-natalist ad campaigns in response to the declining birthrate, the state has made a comparatively modest public effort to promote oral contraception, or "the Pill".

Paxson reports that only 5 percent of Greek women were on the pill in the 1990s, as opposed to 35 percent of women in other European countries. This was a nationwide estimate, and the number of women on the pill may be higher in Athens and Thessaloniki but, according to Paxson, "it's clear that far fewer Greek women are on the pill than elsewhere." Greek family-planning counsellors are critical of how prophylactic, or condom, use is not advocated by the state as a way to prevent pregnancy, but only as a way to prevent the spread of Aids.

This makes sense in light of the still common view that sex, and even gynaecology, exist for the sake of procreation, not personal health and wellbeing. A woman is kept healthy in order to procreate. The pill might harm her - by giving her cancer - or inhibit her fertility during crucial child-bearing years. According to Paxson, these views are held by many people in Greece, including doctors. Some women said their husbands didn't want them to take the pill because of the health risks, but also, as Paxson points out, "her fertility proves his fertility."

If abortion is common partly because other methods of contraception have not been successfully introduced, Paxson emphasises that abortion is not the root cause of the low birthrate in Greece. Women are choosing to abort primarily because they don't have the economic margin to have children.

The economic demands of being a 'good mother' - which today include not only providing material goods but also the education and experience to make 'successful' children - was the number one reason Greek women gave for why they weren't having children, even though they wanted to. Most middle-class women felt the need to keep working, and could not afford the expense of private childcare, coupled with the newly complex consumer needs of raising children in Greece. "It is the bottom line - the economics are the most important part. The birthrate would also go up if there were more information on birth control and better social infrastructure for child rearing," Paxson added.

In the last ten years, the Greek government has continued to push pro-natalist policies, including legalising in vitro fertilisation according to a 2002 EU bioethics mandate, despite strong objections by the Orthodox Church. However, Greece has not followed the example of France and Sweden, countries that have bolstered their birthrates by providing inexpensive oral contraception, subsidising maternity leave, providing state subsidised child care and guaranteeing part-time work for mothers after childbirth (for up to eight years, in the case of Sweden).

Today, politicians are discussing the declining birthrate in EU countries in connection with immigration. Populations with "vanishing babies" - as they were called in a 1998 report in the New York Times - are today replenished by steady immigration. Thus the question of Greeks having children may become more of a pro-nationalist issue than ever.

Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece is an excellent way to become acquainted with these issues. Paxson does not go light on the critical theory, but her writing is, for the most part, clear and authoritative. Phrases such as "the political economy of the maternal body" are worth getting past to arrive at the testimonies of the middle-class Greek women who participated in Paxson's study. Their accounts not only balance out the anthropological jargon, but remind us that the things we hear every day, from mothers and grandmothers, are perhaps the most insightful.

* Heather Paxson is currently a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has also contributed to Barren States: The Population Implosion in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece (University of California Press, 2004) is available by order at Eleftheroudakis or other English-language bookstores in Athens.

ATHENS NEWS , 11/11/2005, page: A35
Article code: C13156A351


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