It is not just a problem confined to China and India: more female fetuses are being aborted in Europe than previously thought, new statistics show - especially in the Balkans.
In Albania, 112 boys are born for every 100 girls. In Kosovo and Montenegro the figures stand at 110 and 109 boys per 100 girls respectively, according to a recent sturdy by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Analysts point to the persistence of archaic family models as the likely cause. Boys are often considered the family's heir, who are expected to carry on its name and traditions, while women leave the family when they marry.
Franziska Brantner, Green party representative at the European Parliament in Brussels, thinks that the development is a result of a combination of different factors. "Poverty and consequent lack of birth control, as well as strong discrimination against women," Brantner, who is a member of the European Parliament's women's rights committee, said. In Albania, she added, access to birth control is roughly at the level of a developing country.
Fatal consequences of lack of women
The devastating social effects of a gender imbalance are undisputed. "One might assume that in societies dominated by men, women would be treated as princesses," said Brantner. "But the reality is violent and unpleasant for them."
Doris Stump, a Swiss delegate in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg, argued that a lack of women goes hand in hand with more prostitution. "Women are procured in different ways, they are imported from other countries, as products, so to speak," she said. The UNFPA study also shows that the number of forced marriages of underage girls and suicide rates among women are on the rise.
Shocking developments in Asia
A gender rate of 105 boys to 100 girls is considered biologically normal. This natural imbalance is later redressed by the higher mortality rate among male babies and children, but in some regions of China and India, between 120 and 130 boys are being born for every 100 girls.
Population expert Christophe Guilmoto of the Institute for Development at Paris Descartes University estimates that the whole of Asia is missing some 117 million women. He has been researching the worldwide gender imbalance for many years, and is the author of the new UNFPA study. Demographers have started referring to this global development as "gendercide."
Consequences of prenatal diagnostics
Medical progress is abetting the number of targeted abortions. With the help of ultrasound, doctors can now determine the sex of a fetus after the 14th week of pregnancy. Aborting a fetus after this point, in the second third of a pregnancy, is illegal in many European countries, as is aborting a fetus because of its gender. The latter is legal in the US.
The birth rates in countries like Albania and Macedonia show that these laws are being ignored - either through illegal abortions, or because reasons other than gender are being used as a pretext.
Women's rights activists also see a trend towards gender selection in European Union member states. Danish media outlets have reported on "abortion tourism" to Sweden, where terminating a pregnancy is legal until the 18th week of pregnancy. Meanwhile, studies from Norway and Britain suggest a gender imbalance among immigrants from Asian cultures, especially among second and third children.
Selection by artificial insemination
Christiane Woopen, a Cologne-based expert in medical ethics, believes that gender selection also takes place during pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). "European statistics show that there are couples, who, after having three children of the same gender, are only implanted with an embryo of the other gender," she said.
During PGD, the genes of artificially-fertilized egg cells are analyzed in order to determine the gender. For that reason, Woopen is demanding that PGD remain an exception in Germany. But the problem remains that PGD is carried out more permissively in other European countries, while in Germany, every case must be considered by an ethics council.
In a November 2011 resolution, the Council of Europe voiced its concern that "prenatal gender selection has reached worrying proportions." But the EU has no legal leverage on the issue, because abortion law and the prosecution of its violations come under the remit of individual states. That's why the EU cannot press for improvements in candidate nations like Albania and Macedonia.
Brantner was concerned that the issue has not yet been addressed by the European Parliament, given that, she said, "it is not just a health question, it's a human rights question."
But the EU parliamentarian does not think stricter abortion laws are the solution. Rather, she believes, social improvements and programmes that combat poverty, coupled with a change in attitudes. "What we need is a transformation in consciousness about gender equality," she said.
Brantner draws some hope from the latest developments in South Korea, where media campaigns and new laws have resulted in gender rates sinking from 115 boys per 100 girls, to a much healthier 107.