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Woods : Zealous Campaigner who has Lived with Controversy

Sunday Business Post, February 3, 2002 by Emily O' Reilly

For anyone under the age of 35, the name Dr Moira Woods has little resonance beyond the immediate child sexual abuse controversy that has dominated all news coverage about the woman for the last five years.

But for another generation she was an iconic figure -- a founder member of the women's liberation movement; a vocal activist on issues that ranged from the Vietnam war and housing action in the 1960s through to the anti-amendment campaign in 1983 which lobbied against that year's abortion referendum.

In 1992, she emerged centre-stage again. Woods was the doctor who cared for the 14-year-old girl in the X case, a role that led to her vilification by elements of the anti-abortion movement, who characterised the controversy as a deliberate attempt to overturn the result of the 1983 referendum. Many of her friends believe that Woods' involvement in this controversy is not unconnected with more recent events.

The X case became public in February 1992. The complaints that sparked the lengthy Medical Council investigation into Woods' work in the sexual assault unit in the Rotunda Hospital were made one month later. The initial complaints related to a case from 1985.

For 20 years, Woods was partner to Cathal Goulding, a former chief of staff of the IRA and the leading intellectual within the Official IRA and Official Sinn Fein. Mother of eight children -- from two marriages and from her relationship with Goulding -- she now lives in an old Tuscan villa in Italy, connected to Ireland largely through the visits of her friends, children and grandchildren.

Woods was born in London in 1934, the daughter of British Catholic civil servant father and an Irish Catholic mother. She came to Trinity College Dublin to study medicine at the age of 16 and quickly emerged as a brilliant student. In her final year, she won a medal for psychiatry, a gold medal for surgery and the hospital prize for medicine.

At 21, she married fellow student Roger Hackett, with whom she had two children. The marriage collapsed shortly afterwards and was annulled, and Hackett emigrated to Canada.

Woods then married a prominent Dublin ENT consultant, Bobby Woods -- more than 30 years her senior -- and set up home in Ailesbury Road, in the exclusive Dublin 4 postal district. According to friends, the late Bobby Woods had considerable property interests throughout the city, the most notable of which was the old British Embassy building on Merrion Square.

The embassy was burned down in 1972 in protest at the Bloody Sunday massacre, and later relocated to Ballsbridge.

The house was rebuilt and is believed to be held in trust for the Woods' children. The couple had four children together, and according to friends they had "never seen a happier marriage". Bobby Woods died in 1970, at the age of 70.

The former journalist and social activist Mairin de Burca recalls that her first contact with Woods was through anti-Vietnam activism. Woods had joined de Burca and others in the Irish Voice on Vietnam movement.

"She'd been a member of a small pacifist group, along with a number of Quakers and other people, and that was what led her into our group," de Burca said. "She was very, very clued in on Vietnam. She'd studied it a lot and knew all about saturation bombing and Agent Orange and so on."

Later, also with de Burca, Woods became involved in the Dublin Housing Action Committee, a group campaigning for better public housing for the city's poor.

"Moira wasn't one for stomping the streets," said de Burca, "so she became our bailsperson. She did have some money, so when we were arrested she'd come along with the money to get us out."

Woods was a registered GP, but kept her practice to a minimum. "She had a lot of children to look after," said de Burca, "plus her husband had money, and anyway, she used to say to us that she couldn't take money from anybody. She was enormously kind. I remember once she came home from holidays to find an entire family living in her upstairs flat. I had brought them to her home arising from my housing action involvement, but she didn't even blink."

Woods' tolerance was also remarked upon by a number of her friends. "She was the most tolerant person I ever knew," said one, "You could tell her anything and she'd never be censorious. She was -- is -- a lovely, warm person. She kept open house. The place was always teeming with kids -- her own, and millions of their friends."

In 1971 Woods began her 20-year relationship with Goulding. The couple, with Woods' children and later their own two sons, set up home in the house on Ailesbury Road.

Friends describe the relationship as a meeting of minds, although Goulding's education had come via voracious reading while in prison. Moira Woods, according to friends, was "fiercely anti-violence" and it was in that area that she and her partner "agreed to disagree".

On one occasion, Woods was so distressed by the tarring and feathering of a young woman in the North by the Official IRA she cut off her own hair in sympathetic protest.

In 1978, she began working at the Well Woman Centre in Dublin, and set up the country's first menopause clinic. She also developed an interest in psychosexual medicine, and began seeing patients referred by the Rape Crisis Centre.

It was her work in this area that led to her contact with the girl in the X case in 1992. Friends recall that around this time Woods fell victim to a stalker, and called in garda protection around her home.

In 1983, Woods joined the anti-amendment campaign steering committee to fight government plans to place a constitutional ban on abortion. Colleagues from the time say that she was not strongly pro-choice, but was hostile to the imposition of Catholic Church teaching on to the country's laws and constitution. Woods herself described the 1983 amendment as akin to 'Rome rule'.

The creation of the Sexual Assault Unit in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin sprang indirectly from the 1983 anti-amendment campaign. Anne O'Donnell, now of the National Women's Council, and a friend and former colleague of Woods, said the idea arose from conversations between herself, Woods and Dr George Henry, an anti-amendment activist who was then Master of the Rotunda.

O'Donnell said: "We began discussing the whole area of sexual abuse. George Henry had been to a maternity hospital in Australia where he'd seen a sexual assault unit in operation. Then, after a lot of lobbying by myself and Moira, a committee was established in the Department of Health, and some time afterwards a unit was set up in the Rotunda with Moira in charge."

The Medical Council's Fitness to Practise Committee last week found Woods guilty of professional misconduct in relation to her work in the sexual assault unit. Some media reports on the unpublished committee report have stated that it found that Woods had made false allegations of sexual abuse. However, it is understood that while Woods was found not to have observed proper protocols, it makes no claims about the validity of the accusations.

Last Wednesday afternoon, in a hotel room in Kildare Street, Dublin, the newest anti-amendment grouping launched its campaign.

As the speakers made their pitch to the media, through an open window came the sound of a loudspeaker, with a disembodied voice hailing Woods' guilty verdict.

The loudspeaker was attached to a moving van with the legend 'Moira Woods guilty' emblazoned on all sides. The irony was lost on nobody.

For anyone under the age of 35, the name Dr Moira Woods has little resonance beyond the immediate child sexual abuse controversy that has dominated all news coverage about the woman for the last five years.