The Empty Cradle of Democracy

Sex, Abortion, and Nationalism in Modern Greece

The Empty Cradle of Democracy

Book Pages: 432 Illustrations: 21 illustrations, 3 tables Published: September 2004

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Sociology

During the 1990s, Greece had a very high rate of abortion at the same time that its low birth rate was considered a national crisis. The Empty Cradle of Democracy explores this paradox. Alexandra Halkias shows that despite Greek Orthodox beliefs that abortion is murder, many Greek women view it as “natural” and consider birth control methods invasive. The formal public-sphere view is that women destroy the body of the nation by aborting future citizens. Scrutiny of these conflicting cultural beliefs enables Halkias’s incisive critique of the cornerstones of modern liberal democracy, including the autonomous “individual” subject and a polity external to the private sphere. The Empty Cradle of Democracy examines the complex relationship between nationalism and gender and re-theorizes late modernity and violence by exploring Greek representations of human agency, the fetus, national identity, eroticism, and the divine.

Halkias’s analysis combines telling fragments of contemporary Athenian culture, Greek history, media coverage of abortion and the declining birth rate, and fieldwork in Athens at an obstetrics/gynecology clinic and a family-planning center. Halkias conducted in-depth interviews with one hundred and twenty women who had had two or more abortions and observed more than four hundred gynecological exams at a state family-planning center. She reveals how intimate decisions and the public preoccupation with the low birth rate connect to nationalist ideas of race, religion, freedom, resistance, and the fraught encounter between modernity and tradition. The Empty Cradle of Democracy is a startling examination of how assumptions underlying liberal democracy are betrayed while the nation permeates the body and understandings of gender and sexuality complicate the nation-building projects of late modernity.


“[T]he fundamental strengths of this book are undeniable. Alexandra Halkias has written an exhaustive exploration of the multifarious connections and interconnections between the demografiko and abortion with reference to sex, gender, birth control, nationality, identity, etc. It is layered with analyses and theory and breaks new ground in the study of modern Greece as well as the study of the construction and the conceptualization of the nation.” — Peter S. Allen, Nations and Nationalism

“[The] interplay of a low birth and a high abortion rate is perceived as a major national problem, and referred to as the demografiko, it is intensively debated in Greek public discourse. Halkias takes this discourse as an entry point to explore the multi-layered and intricate connections between narratives of national identity and subject formation.” — Nora Gresch, NWSA Journal

“Alexandra Halkias' multi-faceted inquiry raises fundamental questions regarding the agency of the female subject and the issue of abortion. . . . The Empty Cradle of Democracy is an ambitious project, an amalgam of history, cultural politics, compilations of empirical data on Greek demographics and abortion, and primary source testaments; it braids together various interdisciplinary terrains to suggest their interdependencies in the construction of a national identity in gendered, social contexts.” — Adrianne Kalfopou, European Association of American Studies Reviews

“Halkias is particularly thorough in analyzing the discourse surrounding the dimographiko as found in political speeches, newspaper reports and letters to the editor of the leading Greek news publications. . . . [An] important addition to the longstanding debate over ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in Greece. . . .” — David Sutton, South European Society and Politics

“Overall, this is a well-written and relevant book…The book is rich, relevant, and puts forward novel interpretations of the undeniable relationship between gender, reproduction, identity, and the nation.” — María Fernanda Olarte Sierra , Medische Antropologie

“With all its richness of data and interpretation that penetrates deep into the complexities of the multiple links between national identity, sexuality, and gender, this volume stands out as an excellent work. Halkias writes in a prose that is most of the time inspired, engaged, and masterfully arranged.” — , Archives of Sexual Behavior

"[A] rich, meticulously detailed project. . . . [The] first hand testaments give this richly layered work immediacy and maintain reader interest in the subject matter despite the weightiness of the themes. . . . [T]his very culturally specific work has been published by Duke University Press, a highly reputable University Press. . . . That the press has brought this work to print . . . is a tribute to Halkias' achievement not least of which is putting less conventionally 'Hellenistic' themes associated with the culture into dialogue on an academic world stage beyond Greece's borders. Dr. Halkias' book will be of fundamental interest to anyone who wishes to probe the paradoxical and sometimes tragic ironies of a fragmented cultural modernity examined through the nation and the female body." — Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Athens News

"[S]cholarly, erudite, wide-ranging, provocative. . . . [T]his ambitious book tackles an important set of issues and provides us with much to think about. It is a major contribution to the sociology of gender in Greece and to an understanding of the recourse to abortion there." — Peter Loizos, Journal of the History of Sexuality

"The method the author uses is daring. . . . [F]or example, her visit to a clinic where abortions are performed. The visit is presented in narrative form and a personal tone in one of the most interesting chapters of the book. . . . [T]he writing is unconventionally honest. . . . [T]he main contribution of the book is the argument that gendered subjects are shaped by public nationalist discourse even in private matters, such as the domain of their sexual life." — , Sotiropoulos To Vema

An ambitious undertaking, Alexandra Halkias’ The Empty Cradle of Democracy reveals much about the entanglements of gender, sexuality and nationalism as she explores the practice of and discourses that surround abortion in modern Greece. . . . [T]his book covers tremendous ground, building from an extensive collection of empirical materials. It is an impressive undertaking and skillfully done. “ — Amy L. Best, Social Forces

“Alexandra Halkias probes the tension between the male-centered, hegemonic assumptions of European nationalism and the representation of the nation as a female body (and the female body as a national property) with an adroit irony leavened by perceptive compassion. At the heart of the paradox of modern Greece, cast as both the despised backwater and the glorious cradle of ‘the West,’ she incisively dissects a concomitant paradox: insistent calls to fill the cradle coexist with a remarkably high rate of abortion. This is politically forthright cultural analysis grounded in intimate and yet also wide-ranging observation.” — Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University

“The question of Greek women’s ready use of abortion and their ‘failure’ to use other methods of birth control is one that for some time has intrigued anthropologists. Alexandra Halkias offers provocative arguments regarding the ‘naturalness’ of abortion and the relationship between sexuality and national identity.” — Jill Dubisch, author of In a Different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender, and Politics at a Greek Island Shrine


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Alexandra Halkias is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Panteion University in Athens, Greece.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgents xi

Introduction 1

Part 1. The Agoras of Agon

1. Setting the Stage: Athens, Greece, Fantasy, and History 19

2. Stage Left: Greek Women 35

3. Center Stage: What is Greece? 53

4. Stage Right: The Demografiko 77

Part 2. In Context, in Contests

5. In the Operating Room: On Cows, Greece, and the Smoking Fetus 89

6. Give Birth for Greece! Abortion and Nation in the Greek Press 113

Part 3. Sexing the Nation

7. Navigating the Night 135

8. The Impossible Dream: The Couple as Mother 207

9. Abortion, Pain, and Agency 235

10. Reprosexuality and the Modern Citizen Face the Specter of Turkey 291

11. A Critical Cartography of the Demografiko’s Greece 319

Epilogue: Theory and Policy 345

Notes 349

References 381
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3323-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3311-1
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