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Department of Sociology


Lorelei Booth is a third year HSPS undergraduate studying sociology and politics at Hughes Hall. She has particularly enjoyed the Sociology of Gender paper and was inspired to write this article by Professor Sarah Franklin’s lectures on reproduction.


The hushed tones and stark white lights of fertility clinics are not something we’re used to comparing to raucous, windowless casinos, but I argue they’re more familiar than we might initially assume. I trace a similar path of hope, addiction, financial strain and wider negative implications between these two acts. It seems for both, the deck is always stacked against you; Invitro Fertilisation and the Wheel of Fortune have identical success rates.

Winning Lady Luck’s grace – a famously harsh and unfair woman – we tend to feel can only be achieved through the intensity of our hope. And I pose ‘hope’ as the core foundation of both the gambling and IVF process, neither of which ever have the odds in our favour. Rationality should convince us they’re not worth the risk but the prospect of a miraculous life altering change, in either the form of a ‘miracle baby’ or a ‘miracle lump sum’, is what bolsters stakeholders onwards. The intensity of this hope often trumps the strength of interpersonal relationships; we all know of a relationship destabilised by a gambling addiction, and the couples who have been unsuccessful in IVF who divorce at three times the rate of others. It’s not just your ‘miracle’ goal that is under the scrutiny of stick or twist. Hope acts as the manifestation of our yearning; for people who aren’t able to have children in the way they imagined, it is the desire for that child that becomes the natural basis for conceiving it under ‘unnatural’ means. Similarly, when people become disillusioned by the myth of meritocracy, they feel deserving of a streak of luck that recognises them as people worthy of financial gain nonetheless. Both want-to-be-parents and gamblers feel empowered by taking their fate into their own hands and foster a determination in the face of the demands posed by an intensive IVF programme or the green baize card table.

We are likely aware of someone we know with a gambling addiction, but I argue we probably also know of someone with an addiction to the IVF process, it is simply not pathologized in the same way. The illusion of control known as the gambler’s fallacy affects both groups, and their cognitive bias traps them within a behavioural feedback loop. Part of this addiction is sustained by success stories. Dr Patricia Rashbrook had an IVF baby at 62. A dinner lady from my school won the lottery and drove to school in a Ferrari to hand in her resignation. Addiction represents a pendulum on a spectrum that swings between sod’s law and the feeling of ‘that could be me’. These compulsions are further reinforced by your past efforts, if you’ve come this far why stop now? Many women speak of lessoning the pain of unresolved fertility issues by the feeling of ‘at least I’ve tried everything’. Similarly, it’s easy to feel like there’s no point in cashing in your chips if you haven’t made back your ‘buy in’ money yet. The IVF and the gambling treadmill are powered by an impossibility of emotional resolution without success. The dice is already rolled.

I go as far as to argue that fertility clinics and the ‘bookies’ are spaces similarly stylised to foster this compulsion. The fertility clinic ‘becomes a public, professionally mediated, complex and extended clinical procedure’. It strategically bridges a gap between what IVF involves and the imagined process of what having a child is. It replaces the latter with desire (symbolised by the stock photos of smiling babies on clinic walls) accomplished through science (symbolised through the almost roleplay-like tendencies of clinicians to wear lab coats even during consultations). I contend that casinos similarly renormalise the inherent risk-taking of the gambler through the undermining of the severity of its consequences. Loud music, cartoon fruit slot machines and neon lights funify and gamify an act of often paramount risk. Desire is triggered through the signifier of visible prizes and the loud coin rattling sound effects of machines, and seemingly made possible by the success of those around you. The panopticon-esque, open nature of casino spaces is no coincidence.

And with recent technological advancements, these spaces of compulsion are not limited purely to the embodied. The rise in apps that can trace fertility windows and provide extensive, personalised data presents fertility as something that ‘sensible’ people track and trace almost constantly. The view of reproduction as an inevitable, biological occurrence has been subverted by these reproductive technologies. Likewise, the rise in online gambling has broadened it from an act only done in public, to now also encroaching on the private. The normalisation of app-based gambling is underlined by the statistic that over 21% of adults have gambled online in the last month.

But perhaps the most glaring similarity between gambling and IVF treatment is the financial strain it can cause. A survey by the Fertility Network UK found 95% of patients had experienced financial worries in relation to fertility treatment, and this has only been exacerbated by the recent cost of living crisis. This proves especially problematic for women undergoing cryopreservation who must pay regular instalments; failure to do so results in the destruction of their preserved eggs. A horrific fate which became the horrific reality for many women during the financial turmoil of the pandemic. In parallel, a 2020 report suggested that nearly 5 million British people have experienced financial strain due to gambling. And particularly concerningly, gambling is most common in areas where people are already at a financial disadvantage; 21% of Britain’s gambling outlets are in the poorest tenth of the country. Hope facilitates this risk taking, whilst undermining its consequences.      

All of this suggests to me that corporations have a tendency to prey on these hopeful individuals in a bid to farm them like cash cows. The IVF market was valued at over $600 million dollars in the US alone, and the only not-for-profit IVF clinic in the UK has recently had to shut due to funding problems. The desire for women, whether they be infertile, single, or in queer relationships, to bear a biological child through scientific means is exploited to a capitalist end. This technology has the ability to open a plethora of opportunities for kinship, but is instead preserved for only those financially able, leading to what Shellee Colen terms ‘stratified reproduction’. Similarly, gambling acts to reproduce class inequalities through its over-representation in working class areas. The addiction of working-class men in particular is exploited by companies keen to turn profit, and public policy has done poorly in reducing corporations’ power to reproduce socioeconomic stratifications. It’s corporations that hold all the aces.    

But financial cost is not the only bet on the table. Gena Corea claims women using IVF are harming themselves and selling their bodies as fodder to the male medical establishment. More personally, a family friend of mine speaks often of her tumultuous hormonal reactions to the injections she must endure to enter the baby-lottery. As well as the strong correlation between gambling and alcohol addiction, the Department of Health and Social Care have also revealed that people with gambling problems are at least twice as likely to die from suicide compared to the general population. Both groups pay with cash and their bodies.

Although the jackpot for gamblers and individuals undergoing IVF differ, hitting the jackpot at any cost is the goal for both. Whilst the former group is considered as unnecessarily undertaking risk, the latter is viewed as undergoing a process they are overtly entitled to. All of this leaves me to ponder the interplaying norms that cause society to view these two groups in such different ways.

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