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What value do you place on the life of a missing woman? Laurie Penny on gendercide.

The selective abortion of female foetuses tends to reflect the esteem in which women are held in society.

If the words "feminist thought exercise" don't make you moist with anticipation of breathless minutes of fun, I don't know what you're doing reading this column. However, in the event that complex problems of gender and human rights don't of themselves tickle your interest glands, consider this: all over the world, from eastern Europe to India, millions of baby girls are missing.

There is a gap in the census. It howls with the ghosts of girl-children who died young, or who never lived -- tens of millions of potential human beings, neglected to death, murdered at birth or (in increasing numbers) terminated when an ultrasound scan showed that a woman was due to come into the world.

So here's a feminist thought exercise for you. The Council of Europe has just passed a draft resolution whereby expectant mothers across the EU member states might be forbidden from knowing the gender of their unborn child. If the resolution is agreed and passed into law, doctors in the UK and 26 other countries would be strongly encouraged, if not strictly obliged, to refuse parents prior knowledge of whether their baby will be a boy or a girl. The stated purpose of this resolution is to prevent the selective abortion of female foetuses, which, experts claim, has become a trend in several of the former Soviet states.

Chance to live

The word campaigners are using for this trend is "gendercide". Over 20 years ago, the economist Amartya Sen estimated the number of "missing" women -- potential adult females aborted, killed in infancy, or simply denied vital food and medical resources -- at 100 million. That figure is now undoubtedly higher. In China, where the one-child policy conspires with a traditional, sexist preference for sons to make many families desperate for a baby boy, the male-female ratio for children born in the late 1980s is 108 boys to 100 girls. For the generation born in the early 2000s, the ratio is 124:100, and it is an indictment on the global press that the most commented-on consequence of this population shift is the millions of young men in China, northern India and elsewhere who are unable to find brides.

The selective abortion of female foetuses tends to reflect the esteem in which women are held in society. In cultures where girls are barred from education, prevented from inheriting property and valued only as wives and mothers, pre-birth sex selection is on the rise.

The Council of Europe is not alone in considering a crackdown on reproductive freedom as a response to this crisis, though its powers are limited as black-market gender testing is widely available. Moreover, many of those who believe in a woman's right to choose say that it is unethical to deny any woman knowledge about the pregnancy she is carrying. This month, Colchester Hospital foundation reversed its policy of refusing to give out such information after a pregnant woman campaigned to know the sex of her foetus.

Here, then, is the dilemma. What do you do about all those missing women? Do you pass yet another law interfering with women's right to know and make decisions about their own pregnancies to the fullest extent that modern technology allows? Or do you permit the disappearance of thousands more women from history? There is a solution, and it comes from South Korea.

In the 1990s, South Korea had a sex ratio similar to China's but the male-female birth rate is now nearly normal, not because of medical restrictions but because of a change in culture. Better education of girls, equal rights legislation and more participation by women in public life made prejudice against female children seem outdated, according to a recent report by the Economist.

The history of human civilisation is a history of missing women. It is a story of women who never got the chance to live, even if they did make it to adulthood -- women deprived of education, barred from public life, suffering and dying in childbirth, shut up in the home, sold into slavery, perceived only as drudges and sex receptacles and dispensable factories for the production of sons.

In a world where females are still judged as inferior, even before birth, it is not sufficient to legislate so that enough girls are born. If you want to change the world, you have to value those girls when they arrive.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.