Commentary — June 17, 2011, 4:25 pm

Greece on the Brink

There’s a story circulating in Athens lately about George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister. Arriving with his retinue at a popular taverna just outside the city, and noting that many of its patrons were smoking — a practice banned inside eating places in Greece, as in the rest of the European Union, for some years — he wheeled around and went outside, to give people time to put out their cigarettes. When he reentered, several minutes later, everyone was still smoking.

The anecdote is meant to illustrate the ineffectiveness of the Greek leader (“You see how hopeless he is?” a Greek friend asked, after telling me the story), but it also says a great deal about the Greeks themselves. Often accused of being anarchists, they take a certain pride in their unruliness. “The Greeks have never learned to be citizens, to see themselves as part of the state,” another friend explained. “Myself also. If my courtyard is clean, I really don’t mind if there is rubbish in the square.”

For the past few days, there has instead been rioting in the square. As the financial press waxes gloomy about the prospect of a Greek default (calling it a “Lehman moment”), and the International Monetary Fund pressures the reluctant Germans to agree to a second bailout, protesters from across the political spectrum have rallied in opposition to the strict austerity measures proposed by the hapless Papandreou, who has been forced to promise the Germans further drastic cuts in seeking the loans his country desperately needs.

Some of the protesters are angry that their generous pensions have been cut; some, that the bloated Greek civil service is going to eliminate more jobs. Others are concerned that the proposed measures will cut into tax revenues, making it less likely than before that the Greek government will ever be able to repay its debt, and potentially sinking the economy further into recession. Still others feel they are being punished for sins the rest of the world is still getting away with. Greeks — and Greece — may have lived beyond their means for decades, but as they point out, so did many others, including Americans. And what about the American bankers of Goldman Sachs, who colluded in 2000 with a corrupt right-wing government to hide the true levels of Greek debt so that the country could join the Eurozone? They made a fortune off the deal, but no German is insisting they pay it back or surrender their birthright (as two German ministers did in March when they suggested Greece sell off its islands, or even the Acropolis).

There will be an emergency meeting of European finance ministers in Brussels this weekend — the second such gathering in less than a week. To protect the Euro and prevent potentially catastrophic defaults, the Eurogroup will almost certainly issue further loans. France and the European Central Bank have finally managed to persuade Germany that such a step is necessary. Papandreou, after failing to form a coalition government, has now appointed a new finance minister, who has pledged to wage war on the country’s economic problems. The financial press reports that “the markets” have been calmed by his promises. Whether the Greek people will also be calmed is still an open question.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
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