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What value do you place on the life of a missing woman?

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

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.