Empire Editorial: Bar pee sticks not the right fix

Fairbanks Sen. Pete Kelly has declared war on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and in doing so has turned to unconventional combat by pushing for pregnancy tests in bar bathrooms across the state.

Alaskans should support the campaign to eradicate FAS, but we don’t praise this particular outside-the-box approach.

Attacking the issue of FAS in Alaska with this plan is like trimming the leaves of a noxious weed, with the expectation it will die. To eradicate an infestation, one has to attack the roots.

This issue is less about women who drink and don’t know they’re pregnant; instead, it’s an issue associated with alcoholism and women who may know they’re pregnant, but feel an urge to drink regardless.

The bar pregnancy test proposal doesn’t address alcoholism. If it did, the senator wouldn’t be proposing women to go to a bar to take a pregnancy test. Women who drink while pregnant — knowingly or otherwise — should be encouraged to stay as far away from bars as possible. Asking individuals who may be struggling with alcohol dependency to take a free pregnancy test inside a bar is like asking someone who’s fighting obesity to attend a support group at McDonald’s.

We’re not saying every woman who enters a bar is an alcoholic and we’re not saying all pregnant women in Alaska struggle with alcohol dependency.

We are saying this is not the approach that will make a difference.

Instead, the Legislature could pass a law making it illegal to knowingly sell or distribute alcohol to a pregnant woman. Or launch an aggressive education campaign that shows the physical and mental effects of alcohol consumption on children while in utero. Those steps would do more to eradicate FAS than handing out state-funded pregnancy tests in bar bathrooms.

There could also be liability concerns for the state if a woman takes one of these bathroom tests, receives a false negative result and continues drinking, only to learn later she’s pregnant and delivers a baby with FAS. Who will she blame? The company that makes the pregnancy test or the entity that provided it? A long and costly court battle may ensue. An unintended consequence could also be that women stop buying pregnancy tests altogether and instead rely on the state-purchased ones down at their favorite pub.

The bottom line: efforts to combat FAS should be aimed at those who know they’re with child but refuse to or cannot stop drinking for the duration of the pregnancy. No number of pregnancy tests in bar bathrooms will change the behavior of those individuals.

Efforts should instead be focused on treatment, education and awareness. Sen. Kelly’s heart is in the right place, but his plan misses the mark.

The majority of women who learn they’re pregnant quit drinking immediately. The ones who don’t or cannot stop are the problem.

• Empire editorials are written by the Juneau Empire’s editorial board. Members include Publisher Rustan Burton, rustan.burton@juneauempire.com; Director of Audience Abby Lowell, abby.lowell@juneauempire.com; Managing Editor Charles L. Westmoreland, charles.westmoreland@juneauempire.com; and Asst. Editor James Brooks, james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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