Critics blast state-funded sex-ed Web site
By Christine McConville, Chris Cassidy and Laurel Sweet
A state-funded sex education Web site that tells teens an abortion is "much easier than it sounds" has drawn fire from outraged pro-lifers who say mariatalks.com is glossing over ugly truths, steering teens toward the controversial procedure and counseling them how to keep mom and dad in the dark.
"The commonwealth is using taxpayer money to tell kids how to get a secret abortion, and that's wrong," said Linda Thayer, a former Boston schoolteacher who is vice president for educational affairs of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which this week took aim at the site.
"This is a misuse of state funds, especially for parents who are taxpayers," said Thayer, who also blasted the Web site for "deception by omission" for describing abortion simply as "when the contents of the womb (uterus) are removed."
Mariatalks.com, featuring fictional hip teen "Maria," who addresses teens in a breezy tone, has been produced since 2008 by the AIDS Action Committee with $100,000 annual grants from the state Department of Public Health. The money also covers a sex-crisis hotline and other outreach efforts.
AIDS Action Committee chief Rebecca Haag, in a statement defending the Web site, said, "We feel strongly that the issues that are addressed through the Maria Talks Web site are essential in safeguarding the general, sexual health of youth by informing them of their risk for unintended pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections."
Maria tells teen readers abortion is a "hot topic" but that the procedure is "more common than you might think" and "safe and effective, though some people may experience temporary discomfort." The site's discussion of risk is limited to advising that it is better to get an abortion sooner rather than later.
Planned Parenthood declined to comment on the language used by mariatalks.com. However, the abortion provider's own Internet abortion advice includes a lengthy list of potential health risks — such as "infection," "blood-clotting," "injury to the cervix or other organs," and "an incomplete abortion."
In another segment, Maria says to Massachusetts teens, "The reality of getting an abortion is much easier than it sounds here." In contrast, a more cautionary Maria counsels on another page that adoption "can be pretty tough for some people, especially emotionally."
Of conflicted feelings over abortion, Maria counsels that one of her fictional friends found it a "difficult decision" but decided the procedure was the "best choice . . . for herself, her boyfriend, her family and her future."
Of bypassing parental approval, Maria says, "It may be really hard for you to imagine talking to either your parents or a judge about getting an abortion, but there are people who can help you through it."
By comparison, Planned Parenthood explicitly states, "Teens are encouraged to involve parents in their decision."
Under state law, children under 18 seeking an abortion must have permission from a parent or a guardian. Maria notes that state law allows minors to skirt that approval through a confidential judicial hearing, saying, "I know it sounds crazy . . . this really can be done and young women do this all the time here in Massachusetts."
The site then directs teens to Planned Parenthood, saying that agency will either help them talk to parents or provide a lawyer to guide them through the judicial process.
NARAL Pro-Choice America Executive Director Andrea Miller called Maria Talks "terrific."
"It's really a complete and medically accurate set of information," Miller said. "I'm impressed that the state has provided this information in a youth-friendly, nonjudgmental manner."
State health officials had no immediate comment on the controversy over the site yesterday.
Meanwhile, Charles Skidmore, principal of Arlington High School, where a Maria Talks poster hangs in the nurse's office, said, "I'm assuming because it's from the Department of Public Health, it's balanced information. There's so much information available now, at least this has someone standing behind it that is a state-sponsored organization."