The Greek Orthodox Church Adopts American Anti-Abortion Rhetoric

On a Monday morning in January, metro commuters across Athens were greeted with posters of an illuminated fetus, affixed in the type of frames that usually announce concerts and plays. Sponsored by the group Let Me Live, the anti-abortion posters at 17 metro stations sparked outrage on social media: Some train riders critiqued the ads as “medieval,” while a former minister decried them as “unacceptable.”

By the end of the day, the minister of infrastructure and transportation ordered that the posters be withdrawn, stating they were “directed against an absolutely guaranteed and undeniable right of women.” Access to abortion has been a fact of life in Greece since 1986, when it became a legal right. But a growing rightward shift in Greece, where the conservative New Democracy came to power last year, is turning abortion into a hot-button political topic, with campaigns modeled on the American pro-life movement gaining growing momentum in the European nation.

Last summer, the Greek Orthodox Church declared a “day of the unborn child.” On Dec. 29, Let Me Live, a collection of 19 far-right Orthodox Christian associations, took out a full-page ad — an image of a fetus cupped in a hand — on the cover of one of Greece’s most popular sports newspapers. In early February, similar posters were tacked all over the northern city of Thessaloniki. 

Women have to understand how precarious their rights are.

Efi Avdela, historian

The Greek Orthodox Church has opposed abortion since the 1980s. But what’s new is the adoption of such aggressive, in-your-face tactics borrowed from the American anti-abortion movement. Online, Let Me Live shares news stories from American Christian anti-abortion groups like the Silent No More Awareness Campaign. They post about Roe v. Wade and frequently use language like “unborn child” and the idea that “life begins at conception” — staples of anti-abortion rhetoric in America. Since its launch in 2017, Let Me Live has hosted seminars, conferences and marches across Greece. Lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic have only temporarily put plans for more events on hold.  

“It looked like we had finished this issue,” says Dr. Alexandra Makri, an Athens-based gynecologist. “It seems we have not finished.”

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Makri says, it wasn’t unusual for women to rely on abortions as a method of contraception, even though they were illegal. Makri was part of a Greek feminist movement that successfully campaigned for full abortion rights in the ’80s.

The Let Me Live ad, with an image of a fetus cupped in a hand, from December 2019.

Since legalization, abortion has been a common practice. In 2015, Greece had 27 abortions for every 1,000 women, according to the Greek Society for Family Planning, Birth Control and Reproductive Health. In the United State, that figure stands at 11.6 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44.

Christina Manolanaki, a 23-year-old who recently graduated from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, was shocked last year when she saw stickers the size of bottle caps with the slogan “Let Me Live” plastered on trees and walls in her neighborhood. She and a friend walked up and down the street pulling down the stickers. “I thought the movement of pro-life belonged to the past,” Manolanaki says. A few months later, she was scrolling through Facebook when a promoted video popped up in her news feed. It said: “Can you look me in the eyes, my mother tried to abort me.”

In a statement to OZY, Let Me Live said it is trying to raise awareness about the life of the “unborn child,” and “we strongly believe that every human life in our country should be saved and protected.” The group denies that it is in contact with any American pro-life group. “But these teams are often a source of inspiration and scientific information to us,” it acknowledged.

That influence is in keeping with documented attempts by American Christian organizations to export anti-abortion ideology to countries such as Poland, the United Kingdom, Zambia and Kenya.

But Efi Avdela, a professor emerita of contemporary history at the University of Crete, sees the emerging movement in Greece as part of a Greek nationalist movement. The groups behind Let Me Live “present themselves as the core of the nation, stating their many procreations guarantee continuation of the nation,” she says. “They’re all involved with a certain idea of what it means to be Greek.” Many of these organizations vocally oppose migration and were involved in the campaign against the renaming of Northern Macedonia. Several of them have shared an image of a manicured hand pointing a gun at a fetus, superimposed over a Greek flag.

Their campaigns are receiving ballast in part because of right-wing concerns over Greece’s declining population. Last March, current prime minister and then New Democracy president Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in Parliament that a society with fewer and older Greeks “undermines the future of the nation and the country.” He cited the “overwhelmingly large number of abortions” as one of the “issues” Greece needed to address.

Several other members of New Democracy have made the link between abortion and the so-called demographic problem. In December, the party’s vice president, Adonis Georgiadis, congratulated the newspaper that published the Let Me Live ad for doing so “despite the reactions.” The same month, the government passed a law that promises 2,000 euros ($2,164) for every child born in the country to a permanent resident mother.

Let Me Live — which says it isn’t supported by the government — is facing resistance too. In February, the feminist collective No Tolerance held a workshop on abortion in the center of Athens and a protest outside a conference organized by the groups behind Let Me Live. At the workshop, Makri addressed a roomful of young feminists. “Abortions have always happened and will always happen,” she told them. “Freedom of abortion is protecting women’s health.”

Other feminist groups have used posters and banners to critique the use of nationalism in the anti-abortion rhetoric and to provide a history of previous attacks on abortion access. Manolanaki’s student political organization, which usually focuses on ensuring free education, has started calling specifically for free and safe abortions. “I am not shy to say this is my right,” she says.  

Still, Avdela worries that Let Me Live will continue its movement — including seeking a revocation of abortion rights. “Women have to understand how precarious their rights are,” she says. “These rights can at any time be taken back.”

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