The text arrived on Valentine’s Day, and the life-changing news it contained was just in one throwaway line: ‘By the way, I’m pregnant.’
Few such messages — usually a cause for celebration and delight — can have provoked such consternation and disbelief. The fact that the mother-to-be and the baby’s father — neither of whom can be identified for legal reasons — had split up nine months earlier was only part of the problem.
More extraordinary and disquieting was the way in which the baby had been conceived. ‘Through deceit, perjury and negligence,’ says her father today, ‘within a system of unregulated clinics that operate like the Wild West’.
On receiving the text from his ex — with whom he already had a son by IVF — he says he knew instantly that she had been involved in some form of chicanery to become pregnant for a second time. ‘My immediate thought was that she had retrieved a frozen embryo that had been stored at the IVF clinic and fertilised with my sperm, then tricked doctors that I had given my consent for it to be implanted,’ he says.
The man, who has his own design and marketing business, had his signature forged and his ex-partner was able to conceive a child using his sperm
His assessment could not have been more accurate, for it later emerged that his former partner had forged his signature on a consent form, duping doctors at the clinic, IVF Hammersmith, in West London, into believing he had agreed to the impregnation.
The man, who has his own design and marketing business, is affluent, mid-40s, tanned from a recent holiday and dressed in expensive designer casuals.
When we meet in a London hotel he makes an extraordinary admission about the daughter, born in July 2011 and now aged seven, whom he fathered without his knowledge or consent.
‘She is beautiful, charming; lovely but the truth is, I don’t have a profound or special attachment to her and because of that I feel guilty,’ he says. ‘She’s part of my family, but different and that’s extremely difficult to deal with. She’s a constant reminder of the pain the unplanned event of her birth has brought to me. It’s always there.’
The father, who has since married and had a third child with his wife, admits: ‘I don’t feel the same way about my daughter as I do about my other children. There’s an emotional blockage.
‘You may ask why I support her financially, why I have anything to do with her. I am a trustee of a charity that helps abandoned children and my duty is to do my best for her. I know the damage it does when estranged parents look away.’
He measures his words carefully, weighing the significance of each one; at times seeming to hold back tears. He and the little girl’s mother, a teacher, are intelligent, articulate and well-educated. They met in 2005 and although they quickly realised they were incompatible, decided a child might provide the glue to hold the relationship together.
‘We aren’t the first couple to make that mistake and we won’t be the last,’ he says ruefully.
However, the woman was unable to conceive naturally and they had a baby boy by IVF. ‘But the birth was so awful she suffered from post-traumatic stress,’ he recalls. ‘And the relationship fell apart.’
He says he felt ‘shock, desperation and panic’, when he learned she was pregnant for a second time.
‘My ex-partner was vulnerable because she was desperate to have a child, which pushed her over the edge of emotional stability and rational thought and made her do something completely crazy.
‘She is a victim in this case as well as me because the clinic, as well as failing to check that I had given my informed consent, also exploited her vulnerability.’
The father duly sued IVF Hammersmith for the six-figure cost of his daughter’s upbringing — to include the fees for her private schooling, skiing holidays and a nanny — but Appeal Court judges last month ruled that it was ‘morally unacceptable’ to regard a child, who should be viewed as a blessing, as a ‘financial liability’, and he will not receive a penny.
However, he intends to appeal again, to the Supreme Court, not just to fund his daughter’s upbringing, but also to try to retrieve some of his £750,000 court costs, which he re-mortgaged his house to pay.
Meanwhile, he says, he feels vindicated because the court case has exposed the clinic’s malpractice and the failures of its regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
‘It has shone a light on the incompetence of the clinic which has been found wanting,’ he says.
‘It was in breach of its contract in not seeking my consent for the embryo to be implanted.
‘These clinics are operating like the Wild West. This notion that there is a policeman — the HFEA — looking out for the interests of the consumer, is a complete fiction.
‘The clinic has not been sanctioned. The HFEA has asked it to do nothing. Yet this is a major incident. It is obliged to investigate it and report on it, but it has done neither.
‘It has acted as if nothing has happened. The HFEA does not have a consumer champion on its board. Its members have an interest in the industry but not in protecting the public.
‘If it had taken my case seriously I wouldn’t have needed to go to court. As it is, the clinic flouted medical ethics and carried out a procedure without my consent, and such an injustice could not go unheard.’
How was such an abject procedural failure allowed to happen?
The story began when the couple embarked on IVF to have a child together. ‘First, we registered with the NHS, but the process is painfully slow, so while we were waiting we had six attempts at private clinics, all of which failed,’ he recalls.
‘Every round cost between £3,000 and £4,000 and we were sold a lot of extras: scans, blood tests, reviews, all of which were irrelevant and unnecessary — which we did not realise until eventually our no-frills NHS round came up.’
IVF Hammersmith was then acting as an agent for the NHS to provide this service, and although the publicly-funded attempt was basic, unlike the private procedures, it was successful: the couple had a son in November 2008.
After the birth, IVF Hammersmith, ‘flipped into sales mode,’ says the father. ‘They offered to freeze five of our embryos should we wish to use them at a later date.’
The clinic charged £275 — to be collected annually — for the service, and the father says, ‘I felt confident that the embryos would not be used without the informed consent of both me and the mother.
On receiving the text from his ex — with whom he already had a son by IVF — he says he knew instantly that she had been involved in some form of chicanery to become pregnant for a second time (stock image)
‘It seemed a very well-managed and secure process.’
But the birth failed to heal the rift in their increasingly fractious relationship and they split in May 2010 after five years together.
A rancorous and fraught few months followed in which the father, through the family court, sought access to his son.
They were eventually granted shared parental responsibility, ‘although in effect, this meant I saw my son every other weekend because we lived too far apart for me to look after him 50 per cent of the time’, the father says.
He adds: ‘I saw my son purely on his mother’s terms. She’d send me tirades of abusive messages — she was suffering from post-natal depression as well as the stress of a traumatic birth — and negotiating visits was like trying to avoid walking on a landmine. But I tried to stay calm.’
It was against this backdrop that she sent the text on February 14, 2011, casually announcing her second pregnancy. By then her ex-partner had begun a relationship with the woman who would become his wife.
‘At the same time I was trying to negotiate one-to-one contact with my son, so I took a softly, softly approach with my ex,’ he says.
‘I contacted IVF Hammersmith, who pushed me off onto Hammersmith Hospital because the procedure had been commissioned by the NHS.
‘There was a lot of obfuscation and avoidance, and then they said I had to sign a consent form before I could see my former partner’s file and the evidence, which was ridiculous because this is the one medical procedure where there are deemed to be two patients.’
It took a further two years before he was shown the form, and the evidence was unequivocal: his former partner had traced his signature with a pencil.
Forensic investigations revealed remnants of lead beneath the signature’s ink and expert analysis confirmed the forgery.
‘Her motivation was clear. She was pumped full of hormones and desperate for a child, and under such circumstances people do extraordinary things,’ he says.
It emerged, too, that the clinic had taken the £800 fee to implant the embryo before they had seen the consent form. When staff realised it had not been signed, the woman returned home, forged her ex partner’s signature, and returned the next day for the embryo to be implanted.
Her former partner insists he would never have taken the case to court if the clinic and HFEA had taken his grievance seriously.
‘As it was, the clinic was insisting that valid consent was in place. Its response felt casual and ineffective’ he says.
‘IVF Hammersmith had no moral compass. It was just about money. Once you’re on the IVF treadmill it’s very difficult to stop because the urge to have a child is second only to the desire not to die.
‘And the HFEA is completely out of its depth. It also claimed the clinic had done no wrong, so I was compelled to take legal action as a last resort.
‘I don’t feel guilty about bringing the claim. Neither have I decided what I’ll say to my daughter about it if she asks — we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.’
Today, IVF clinics have changed their procedures and insist that both parties are present, with photographic identification, at such critical events as the implantation of embryos.
Meanwhile, IVF Hammersmith no longer operates under the aegis of the NHS: that joint arrangement ended in December 2016.
In fact, when we tried to contact the private fertility clinic for its comments on this case, the trail that led us to a spokesman was convoluted. It emerges that the former IVF Hammersmith has now changed its name to 92 Harley Street, and the only way to communicate with it is via a group called The Fertility Partnership, of which it is a subsidiary.
Jude Fleming, its Chief Operations Officer, comments: ‘We had industry recommended standards of practice at the time and since this event took place, nearly a decade ago, we have reinforced our procedures to go above and beyond what is required to ensure such a situation could not occur again.’
Meanwhile, an HFEA spokesman says: ‘Informed consent is a cornerstone of the regulation of IVF in the UK.
‘The deception in this case is very unusual. In response the HFEA strengthened our guidance in 2016 to make it clear to clinics the steps they should take to ensure they do not fall victim to individuals who are determined to mislead them when it comes to consent.
‘We are reviewing this new judgment to see whether we should offer clinics further guidance around good consent practices.’
Does this response satisfy the father who was duped?
Not a whit.
Her former partner insists he would never have taken the case to court if the clinic and HFEA had taken his grievance seriously (stock image)
He insists that identity fraud at IVF clinics is far from ‘unusual’. Indeed, the risk was first identified in 2006 when St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, surveyed 45 fertility clinics, of which more than a third had experienced or suspected identity fraud.
Then, in 2008, it emerged that a mother had conceived two children at Bourn Hall Clinic, Cambridgeshire, after falsifying the documents.
And there is a further coda to the story: if the unwitting father is successful in his appeal to the Supreme Court and wins a financial settlement from the clinic, it, in turn, intends to sue the mother who forged his signature.
‘It’s disgraceful and despicable,’ says the father.
‘So whatever money might come to me in the future will go full circle because I am adamant about one thing: I cannot let my former partner lose her house to pay court costs. I won’t let any of my children suffer.’