Pair 'made £250,000 from illegal sperm donor service'

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Two businessmen earned £250,000 through an illegal fertility company providing women with access to sperm donors, a court heard today.

In the first case of its kind, a jury was told that Nigel Woodforth, 43, ran the firm from the basement of his home in Reading, Berkshire, with 49-year-old Ricky Gage.

Nearly 800 women signed up to use the online service provided by the company, operating under various names including Sperm Direct Limited and First4Fertility.

Their website introduced would-be donors to women trying to conceive, Southwark Crown Court in central London was told.

Philip Bennetts, prosecuting, said: "In short, the website introduced men who wished to supply sperm to women who wished to use the sperm to impregnate themselves in order to have a child."

The women, having paid an £80 joining fee and £300 to use the service, would then choose from a list of men before the sperm was delivered to their homes through a courier company at the price of £150 per delivery.

Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, however, a licence is needed by anyone wanted to "procure, test or distribute" any sperm or eggs. The two defendants are the first to be prosecuted under the Act.

Gage and Woodforth, who first called themselves SD Limited and advertised on website, face two charges of procuring gametes intended for human application, both of which they deny.

They are accused of procuring sperm for one woman between March and June 2008, after she filled in an online form with her partner and paid fees to the pair. She received the sperm in June but did not get pregnant.

The couple began to have doubts about the company when the anonymous donor's name was mistakenly revealed to them, however.

On the second charge, Gage, of Old Bath Road, Sonning, Reading, and Woodforth, of St John's Road, Reading, are also accused of procuring sperm between October 2007 and November 2008.

They had been warned by the HFEA that they would need a licence to operate the company under new rules introduced in July 2007.

The law was brought in to ensure that both donors and women wanting to conceive had access to information and counselling, and to help protect against the risks of diseases including HIV.

Gage and Woodforth were arrested in April 2009 after an undercover police investigation.

A male officer posed first as a potential sperm donor, and then as a woman called Angie Williams, seeking a donor.

The court heard that the pair's website promised women a "life-changing opportunity".

A message to potential clients read: "You have taken the first step towards letting us help you try to fulfil your dreams of the baby you have always longed for.

"We offer women a life-changing opportunity towards motherhood."

Women were allowed to choose the ethnicity, height, hair colour and even hobbies of the sperm donor they wanted to use.

They could then contact the donor themselves and arrange for the delivery of his sperm to their home, either for self-insemination or through IVF. Recipients were advised to negotiate the payment of expenses to the donor, and to arrange medical tests, themselves.

Papers discovered when their offices at Woodforth's home were searched revealed that they earned up to £17,000 a month from the business.

A list with details of 792 clients was found, and it was estimated that between October 2007 and November 2008 the pair earned nearly £250,000.

Both defendants claim they operated an introduction service and did not need a licence as stipulated by the HFEA Act.

Mr Bennetts said: "The prosecution asserts that the activities of the defendants brought them within the Act and a licence was required.

"The defence say not so - the company acted as an information site and an introduction database. The users of the site made their own private agreement."

Both men met members of the HFEA to discuss the regulations before they came into force and were told they would need a licence, the court heard.

Further to that, Gage contacted Charles Lister, then head of policy at the agency, to discuss how his company could continue to operate. He also raised the possibility of importing frozen sperm into the country.

Gage submitted a licensing application on behalf of Sperm Direct in November 2006 but it was found to be missing details and was subsequently withdrawn. He did not submit another application.

Giving evidence to the court, Mr Lister said private arrangements made by individuals would be considered as being beyond the scope of the HFEA Act as they are "by their nature, impossible to regulate".

Having looked at Gage and Woodforth's company's website, he was of the opinion that the service they were offering could be described as procurement.

Mr Lister told the court: "The present operation, I am sure, at the time was regarded as coming within the requirements for licensing under the directive and the regulations."

The trial was adjourned until tomorrow morning.

The trial is expected to last for up to five days.