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After 3 years, Massachusetts sex-health website becomes anti-abortion rights target

A three-year-old state-funded website in Massachusetts that provides youth-tailored information on sex and reproductive health has fueled recent outrage among anti-abortion rights groups in the state and nationwide, who claim the site promotes misinformation on abortion.

The site has gone largely unnoticed since its inception, but now — as the legislative session (during which several abortion-related bills were introduced) wraps up, the website is making local headlines. This week, two state representatives have joined the bandwagon, calling on Gov. Deval Patrick to shut down the site.

The website, MariaTalks.com (“about sex, birth control and issues that matter”), features fictional “Maria,” an 18-year-old Boston resident who is a “sexpert” among her friends and whose “Aunt Lucia” is an OB/GYN. The site uses conversational language from Maria and her “friends” to address sexual health issues, including sexual anatomy, sexually transmitted infections, birth control, emergency contraception, abstinence, abortion, adoption, sexual violence and LGBT issues. The website redirects all questions to an anonymous Massachusetts Sexual Health Helpline (877-MA-SEX-ED).

There’s a section on Maria Talks that details various sexual practices, such as masturbation, digital sex and anal sex, and clarifies clinical terms to ensure comprehension — “cum” for semen, “butt” for anal sex, and “going down on her” for cunnilingus. However, what has led anti-abortion rights groups like Massachusetts Citizens for Life and Americans United for Lifeto suddenly demand that Gov. Patrick shut down the site is the 846-word section on abortion.

Anti-abortion rights group Massachusetts Citizens for Life last Thursday hand-delivered a letter to Gov. Patrick (as well as Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby and Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach) calling on him to take down the website while “an inquiry is made into its content and authorization.” The group has requested a public accounting of the funding and wants to know who specifically authorized these funds.

“Members of our organization and the general public are appalled by the content of the site,” writes MCL President Anne Fox in the letter. “There is medical and psychological misinformation as well as serious infringements on the rights of parents and families. The site practices deception and misleading omission when discussing the realities and risks of abortions and, literally, coaches minors on how to obtain abortions without telling their parents. This is clearly in violation of the legislative intent of the Massachusetts Parental Consent Law.”

Maria Talks has been produced by the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts for the past three years and is funded through an annual $100,000 grant by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Passages from Maria Talks’ abortion section that have been highlighted by abortion groups and media outlets include:

“An abortion is when the contents of the womb (uterus) are removed, so that the uterus goes back to how it was before a woman got pregnant. Abortions can happen naturally (sometimes referred to as a spontaneous abortion or miscarriage) or can be done with medications or surgery.”

“My Aunt Lucia says that abortions are safe and effective, though some people may experience temporary discomfort. She also says that early abortions have less risk than those done later in the pregnancy.”

Massachusetts Citizens for Life refers to the content on the Maria Talks site as “one-sided and misleading.” MCL also publishes information about abortion, sourcing various media articles, books, medical journals and congressional documents gathered by the National Right to Life:

  • From Keith L. Moore’s *The Developing Human *(1988): “Abortion ends a pregnancy by destroying and removing the developing child. That baby’s heart has already begun to beat by the time the mother misses her period and begins to wonder if she might be pregnant.”
  • From Centers for Disease Prevention and Control: “Surgical abortions are usually not performed before seven weeks, or 49 days.”
  • From From Conception to Birth, written by Robert Rugh, Ph.D., and Landrum Shettles, M.D., Ph.D., (1971): By [day 45] the baby has identifiable arms and legs.
  • From the CDC: “During the seventh through the tenth weeks, when the majority of abortions are performed, fingers and genitals appear and the child’s face is recognizably human.” [According to more recent stats from the CDC, a study in 2007 found that 62.3 percent of abortions were performed at eight or fewer weeks’ gestation, and 91.5 percent were performed at 13 or fewer weeks’ gestation. About 7.2 percent were performed at 14-20 weeks, and 1.3 percent were performed at 21 weeks or greater.]
  • From Jane E. Hodgson, M.D.’s Abortion and Sterilization: Medical and social aspects, published in 1981: Great care must be taken to prevent the uterus from being punctured during this procedure, which may cause hemorrhage and necessitate further surgery. Also, infection can easily develop if any fetal or placental tissue is left behind in the uterus. This is the most frequent post-abortion complication.

In response to the MCL’s letter and subsequent media attention, AIDS Action Committee released the following statement:

Maria Talks is a collaborative effort between AIDS Action Committee and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. All of the content on MariaTalks.com has been developed with input from public health and pediatric experts. The website is designed to provide comprehensive, accurate and culturally appropriate health information and resources in a youth friendly and accessible format. Information is provided about sex, abstinence, birth control, pregnancy, sexually-transmitted infections, and sexual violence. We feel strongly that the issues that are addressed through the Maria Talks website 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.

A recent editorial in the Boston Herald rails on the website, saying: “[H]ow the heck could anyone in the Patrick administration sign off on this? MariaTalks.com doesn’t just explain abortion, it encourages teens to make this life-and-death moral decision. It downplays the emotional aspects, ignores research on possible long-term negative effects…”

NARAL Pro-Choice America Executive Director Andrea Miller told the Herald she stands behind Maria Talks.

“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.” It should be noted that Maria Talks refers to NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Exhale and Pregnancy Options as resources for more information on abortion. Pregnancy Opitons’ site includes “A Guide to Emotional and Spiritual Resolution After an Abortion.”

Americans United for Life has condemned the site for providing information on how to use the state’s judicial bypass process. Massachusetts law requires unmarried women under age 18 to obtain the consent of one parent or a legal guardian or the authorization by a judge before they can receive an abortion.

“If you are under 18 and have decided that abortion is right for you, you can call the Planned Parenthood Counseling and Referral Hotline at 1-800-258-4448 (option 3),” Maria says. “They can either help you talk to your parents, or if you decide that you can’t or don’t want to do that, they will provide you with a free lawyer who will help you go to court and talk to a judge. These hearings are scheduled quickly, are kept completely confidential and so far, no minor who’s gone through this process has ever been denied access to an abortion by a judge.”

“While Maria gives lip service to involving parents in an abortion decision, she fails to emphasize the unique quality of the parent-child relationship, and the fact that parents usually possess information essential to a physician’s exercise of his or her best medical judgment concerning their daughter,” writes AUL’s Mary Harned in an article for AUL’s site that was republished by anti-abortion rights news site LifeNews.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Reps. Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica) and Colleen Garry (D-Dracut) support MCL’s effort to tear down the site, for its use of graphic language and explanation of abortion.

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