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Pregnancy tests in Alaska bars: What's the problem?

Jill Burke
Fairbanks Rep. Pete Kelly has attracted a great deal of heat for suggesting the state provide free pregnancy tests wherever Alaskans drink alcohol, but people on the front lines of Alaska's battle with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders think it could be a place to start.
Alaska Dispatch file art

Rep. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, finds himself in the middle of a media storm for proposing the state spend its money on free pregnancy tests to be placed in bars and restaurants, or anywhere, for that matter, that people drink alcohol. His idea stems from his involvement with Empowering Hope, a group formed with the intent of eliminating fetal alcohol syndrome from Alaska.

Last month, Kelly told Alaska Dispatch that “the pregnancy test assumes the best of us. If you know (you're pregnant), you'll make the right decision.”

When asked about whether he'd also thought about making condoms readily available, he said no, because the message the state would be sending would be different. Instead of encouraging people to make a good decision, he said free condoms send the message, “'Here, use this, because you are not going to control yourself.'”

During a floor session Monday (at 56:10), Kelly explained Empowering Hope might one day consider birth control as a component of its anti-FASD efforts. But for now, it's not in the mix. He then talked about how birth control may not protect binge and chronic drinkers from producing alcohol-affected babies, and that there was concern within Empowering Hope about endorsing a prevention method that isn't failsafe.

The more Kelly talks, the more critics are roasting him for his views on contraception. But should this overshadow his efforts to place pregnancy tests in bars?

“I don't see any harm in it. I think it is a good idea,” said certified nurse midwife Laura Sarcone. “Information is power. I think it can't hurt, and it could very well help. As part of a wider program to prevent FAS, it can be helpful. Right next to the free pregnancy tests, I would like to see free condoms and expanded access to free contraception. But this is clearly a starting point.”

Sarcone also says that free pregnancy tests in bars allow a woman to take the test in private -- and by her own choice. Personal choice is important and empowering. If a woman is not pregnant, she knows she can drink without harming a fetus. If she is pregnant, she can stop drinking and minimize any potential harm.

“If a woman is ever going to make a change in (her) life, it's going to be when they are pregnant, when they have someone else very important now to do that for,” said Jana Shockman, a registered critical care nurse who also sees some value in Kelly's proposal.

Even so, Shockman is skeptical about whether the pregnancy tests are the best way to spend public money if effective prevention is the goal. It may stop a few women from drinking while pregnant, but Shockman is unconvinced it will make a widespread difference.

The food and beverage industry in the state also isn't sure what to make of Kelly's efforts. At least, not yet.

“We think it's a bizarre way to solve a problem,” said Laile Fairbairn, co-owner of Spenard Roadhouse, a popular restaurant and bar in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.

The Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailer's Association also isn't sure what to make of the idea.

“We would like to do anything we can to help prevent fetal alcohol syndrome,” said Dale Fox, CHARR's president. But exactly how the pregnancy test idea will fit in remains to be seen.

The concept isn't defined enough yet -- like how the tests would actually be dispensed -- for the association to consider or comment on, he said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.