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IVF Journeys of No Return: A Sociological Analysis of Reproductive Ambivalence in Contemporary China



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This research presents an in-depth qualitative portrait of Chinese women’s in vitro fertilisation experiences (IVF) in the post-one-child era, providing a sociological analysis of reproductive politics in contemporary China. With the end of the one-child policy, the population policy in China has heralded a gradual retreat of anti-natalist policies and signalled a shift towards pro-natalism at the national level. However, at the individual level, the recent population policy does not seem to be embraced on a large scale, with people expressing unwillingness to have (or to have more) children and fertility anxiety about the high costs of childcare.

Throughout this thesis, I argue that IVF journeys reveal multi-layered ambivalence around reproduction – with both pro-natalist and anti-natalist aspects – and that IVF also intensifies women’s ambivalence in their pursuit of fertility. I employed a multi- sited ethnography for this study combining participant observation at a family hostel for IVF patients from across China in Beijing with in-depth semi-structured interviews with 29 women, 2 clinicians and 1 bioethicist. I also visited several IVF clinics following women’s treatment trajectories and collected information from online IVF forums, group chats, media representations, and population policy documents.

In my analysis of the data, I develop the concept of ambi-natalism to refer to the interplay of multiple ambivalent factors regarding reproductive culture and practice, including both pro-natalist and anti-natalist aspects. Three data chapters elaborate on aspects of the IVF journeys that characterise ambi-natalism. I start with how an IVF decision was negotiated within a family, move on to how women tried their best to navigate a successful IVF treatment, and finally explore how women reflect upon their IVF journeys and their motivations.

This thesis draws on the sociology of reproduction, feminist IVF research, the sociology of the family, especially with regard to the ongoing individualisation process in China, and the sociology of population governance. The concept of ambi-natalism contributes to confounding the tidy dualism between pro-natalism and anti-natalism. On the one hand, it explains the coexistence of both pro-natalist and anti-natalist beliefs and practices regarding reproduction in contemporary China. On the other hand, ambi-natalism addresses the tensions between pro-natalism and anti-natalism in today’s China, pulling and pushing reproductive practices whereby bringing more ambivalence that is borne by women. Furthermore, I suggest that IVF encompasses ambi-natalist values and norms in contemporary China while participating in shaping a latent uncertainty about the state’s demographic future. Additionally, my work offers policy recommendations for building a more gender-equal and fertility-friendly society.





Franklin, Sarah


ambivalence, China, family, gender, in vitro fertilisation (IVF), reproductive politics


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
China Scholarship Council