Two men convicted of sperm donor racket

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The Independent Online

Two men were facing jail today after being convicted of running an illegal fertility company providing women with access to sperm donors.

Nigel Woodforth, 43, ran the operation from the basement of his home in Reading, Berkshire, with 49-year-old Ricky Gage.

A jury at Southwark Crown Court, south London, convicted both men of three counts each of providing sperm without a licence or third party agreement.

The pair, who earned £250,000 from the enterprise, will be sentenced next Friday.

Judge Deborah Taylor told the men: "The court is considering a custodial sentence and/or a fine in relation to these matters."

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.

It is the first time anyone has been prosecuted under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.

The men were reported to the HFEA after one woman who used their service complained about their unprofessional standards.

Melissa Bhalla-Pentley was hoping to have a baby with her partner when she ordered the sperm through the Fertility First website set up by Gage and Woodforth.

She paid the men an £80 joining fee and a further £300, the cost of using the service for each menstrual cycle. She then had to pay a courier company £150 for each delivery of sperm, £50 of which would be given to the sperm donor.

A box, wrapped in grey polythene and containing a pot of sperm and a 10ml syringe, was delivered to her home late one night, the court was told.

Ms Bhalla-Pentley used the sperm for self-insemination but failed to get pregnant. She paid the company another £300 and arranged for another donation from the man the following month.

However, she contacted the company when a copy of the donor's medical tests was sent to her with his name visible. She asked for a refund, but she was told she could not have one.

Under the HFEA's Act, the company should have had a licence. 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.

The defendants claimed they did not need one as they acted only as an introduction database, however.

The website run by Gage and Woodforth promised women a "life-changing opportunity towards motherhood". They were given the chance to choose the ethnicity, height, hair colour, education and hobbies of the sperm donor they wished to use. They boasted of having more than 300 donors nationwide and a 37% success rate.

The HFEA welcomed the jury's verdict today, saying it protected vulnerable women against exploitation.

Professor Lisa Jardine, chair of the HFEA, said: "We understand why women may use these sites.

"Getting access to fertility services can be difficult and there can be some very strong emotional pressures when trying to start a family.

"But unlicensed internet sites like these are exploiting women.

"This is a victory for those women. We will continue to work with the police to prevent more women from being exploited by those who choose to break the law."

The HFEA said it would be writing to similar websites to remind them to apply for a licence if they wish to provide sperm.

There is no guarantee that sperm from unlicensed sites is safe and there are also issues over the fatherhood of any child conceived, the HFEA said.

A sperm donor using a licensed clinic is not the legal father of any child conceived, but he is classed as the parent if the centre has no licence, however.

Without licensed treatment, a child does not have the legal guarantee that they would be able to find out who their father is later in life, if they choose to do so. They cannot access his genetic history either, the HFEA said.