If you live in Alaska, there’s something new coming to a bar near you: free pregnancy tests in the restrooms.
Why? Because Alaska has the highest rate of fetal alcohol syndrome in the country, and state officials are trying to figure out how to address it. The tests are part of a new two-year initiative led by the University of Alaska, which is spending $400,000 to urge bar patrons to avoid drinking alcohol while they’re expecting.
The pilot project involves installing wall-mounted pregnancy test dispensers and posters warning against the risks of drinking during pregnancy. “Think before you drink,” the posters caution. Researchers at the University of Alaska hope those public service ads will be more effective when they’re plastered on pregnancy test dispensers, as opposed to simply hanging alone on the wall.
“This is not a strategy for the chronic alcoholic who is drinking regardless of whatever message they see,” Jody Allen Crowe, who spearheaded a similar program in Minnesota and is partnering with Alaska to install the dispensers, told the Anchorage Daily News. “This is really focused on the 50 percent of unexpected pregnancies, to find out they are pregnant as early as possible.”
The pregnancy test initiative was first proposed by Alaska Sen. Pete Kelly (R), who’s looking for ways to use state funds to help prevent the birth defects that can result from being exposed to alcohol in the womb. Compared to the national average, Alaskan women of reproductive age are about 20 percent more likely to binge drink. Alaska Native and American Indian infants are disproportionately affected by prenatal alcohol consumption.
But Kelly isn’t receptive to all ideas about how to lower the number of women drinking while pregnant. Earlier this year, the lawmaker made headlines by suggesting that it’s not appropriate to use state funds to put birth control in bars, even though that could help prevent pregnancies in the first place. “Birth control is for people who don’t necessarily want to act responsibly,” Kelly said. “That’s — I’m not going to tell them what to do, or help them do it, that’s their business. But if we have a pregnancy test, because someone just doesn’t know. That’s probably a way we can help them.”
Kelly’s GOP colleagues have also actively worked to block low-income women’s access to birth control services, claiming that it’s not the government’s responsibility to fund contraception because it’s easy for everyone to afford it. The state has blocked Obamacare’s optional Medicaid expansion, which would extend preventative health care to additional impoverished women, and recently defeated an amendment to an anti-abortion measure that would have expanded publicly funded family planning services to thousands of Alaskans.
The nonprofit group that’s installing the pregnancy test dispensers also plans to put condoms in the bar restrooms. But they’re not being covered with the state dollars designated for the program.