State won't pull sex-ed website

BRAINTREE -- For now, the controversial website will remain in its current format, according to a Department of Health spokesperson.

The site, launched in 2008 by the AIDS Action Committee with a state government grant, includes information on topics such as sexual practices, artificial contraception, teen pregnancy, STD prevention, rape and abortion.

Critics of the site have charged that it contains graphic language inappropriate for children, minimizes the physical and emotional risks of abortion and gives strategies for minors to skirt the state's parental notification law.

They have also contended it is the role of parents, and not the government, to address topics relating to sexual education with their children.

The Boston Herald reported May 1 that Gov. Deval Patrick has declined to remove funding, although he acknowledged he would listen to concerns raised by state legislators who are opposing the site.

Contacted May 2, the governor's office referred requests for comment to the Department of Health.

State Department of Health spokesperson Julia Hurley said the website will still be available in its current format, and also provided The Pilot with a statement.

"The goal of the Department of Public Health is to ensure that medically accurate health information continues to be available and accessible to individuals across the Commonwealth, and we believe that this website hosted by the AIDS Action Committee is an important tool to help us do just that," the statement said. "We understand that some members of the legislature have some concerns about the presentation and content of the Maria Talks website, and we are eager to meet with them over the next few days to listen to their concerns and understand what steps, if any, should be taken to improve upon its content."

Rep. Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica), who was among a group of lawmakers who pressured Gov. Deval Patrick to de-fund or remove the site last week, met with public health officials May 3 to discuss the site.

Uproar over the website began two weeks ago, when officials from Massachusetts Citizens for Life alerted lawmakers about their concerns. MCFL President Anne Fox sent a letter to the governor requesting the site be removed, and last week, 63 state lawmakers signed a similar letter to the governor.

In light of news from the Department of Public Health that the site will remain at least temporarily, the public policy director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, Daniel Avila, encouraged concerned citizens to keep raising the issue with Beacon Hill lawmakers.

"I think it's just important for those concerned about parental rights and governmental communications directed to kids that people keep trying on this issue to have the state take the website down and to address the process that resulted in the website produced with our tax dollars," Avila said.

On April 29 the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops, issued a statement regarding the Maria Talks web site.

"This website employs demeaning and sexually explicit terminology, an approach that rightly deserves the criticism it is receiving," the statement said in part.

"This tactic only succeeds in talking down to minors under the mistaken assumption that the young are incapable of responding positively to challenging and uplifting appeals to their better nature," the statement continued.

The bishops believe the website minimizes abortion's effects, saying the site describes the procedure in "misleadingly opaque terms." They also criticize the site for failing to provide sufficient information on alternatives to abortion, such as adoption.

"The state should work together with all sectors of the community, not just those with a vested interest in offering teens contraception and abortion, to find solutions that respect the dignity of young people and their capacity to make good and wholesome choices," the statement concludes.