Senate Finance committee co-chairman Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, has been served a shot of attention after announcing his intent to put pregnancy tests in bar bathrooms as part of a campaign against Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
“Ninety-percent of women, when they know they’re pregnant, stop drinking instantly,” Kelly said. “And equally important is the public relations impact of the dispenser and the message.”
As one of two people in charge of the power finance committee, Kelly has said he intends to insert money for the program into the state budget.
Rough estimates put the first-year cost of the Republican senator’s “War on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome” around $1.5 million, but that money has not yet been added to the state’s draft operating or capital improvements budgets.
As envisioned by Kelly, bars would not be required to offer the pregnancy tests, which would be provided free in dispensers within women’s bathrooms. The tests are one of three components of an effort to eradicate FAS, which affects as many as 180 Alaska-born children each year. Alaska has the highest rate of FAS children in the country. Symptoms of FAS include permanent mental deficiencies and some physical impairment.
The idea hatched from a group Kelly tasked last year with figuring out solutions for some social ills facing Alaska, he said.
“Our mission morphed into eradicating FAS, and we realize that will take years,” Kelly said.
He said Tuesday that he expects the tests to be distributed to select locations this year.
“These are long-term things, but you’ve got to get started somewhere,” Kelly said, later adding about the pregnancy tests, “think about how much that will get the conversation going.”
The pregnancy tests would be distributed in conjunction with a research project being conducted by the University of San Diego. The first-year cost of the free tests is expected to be about $400,000, Kelly said.
The other two components of the program include a “massive public relations campaign” that will ultimately cost millions of dollars “pretty easily” and working with the First Alaskans Institute to identify community leaders who could organize anti-FAS efforts in their regions, Kelly said.
“Our operational plan going forward is so rudimentary, but this is the infancy of this effort,” Kelly said. “We’re getting the pieces and parts in place but we don’t even know what we might be doing five years on this effort.”
While putting pregnancy tests in bars has sparked passionate debate in Juneau and beyond, Kelly is not the only Alaska legislator who supports the concept.
“It may make someone pause,” Senate minority leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said. “If it makes five out of 1,000, fair enough you got a benefit, but it can’t be the centerpiece of your campaign.”
French added that he would support putting pregnancy tests in bars if it were one component of an effort against FAS. Some of the other components he mentioned included a public relations effort, doing more to educate school-aged children on the dangers of unplanned pregnancy and making more family planning available.
“Really, the place to start is with ready access to contraception,” French said.
Though the state is facing a $2 billion revenue shortfall this year and similar budget gaps are expected for the next decade, French said putting $1.5 million toward fighting FAS is worth it.
“I don’t know the right number, but when you have a state as plagued with this as we are — and it’s a lifetime sentence of behavioral problems — you should spend a lot,” French said. “If you really embrace life, then you want every person to have a decent chance at succeeding.”
Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, echoed the desire to focus the effort on birth control rather than pregnancy tests, but said Kelly’ idea is “not terrible, but it’s a weak start.”
“If you have someone in the bar drinking who has reason to think they might be pregnant, then you’re too late,” Gardner said. “Our shared goal should be to make sure every pregnancy is wanted.
“I don’t understand the resistance to providing access to birth control,” she added.
In response to questions about including birth control as part of the campaign, Kelly said doing so would not serve the mission of eliminating FAS.
“Do we want people to rely on birth control and then go out binge drinking and being sexually active?” Kelly asked. “And what are you going to produce by doing that? You’re going to produce a certain number — maybe a lower number — but you’re going to produce a certain number of FAS babies.”
For another senator, however, the proposal is one that may have unintended consequences including the elimination of the private market for pregnancy tests in Alaska and other, more serious, risks.
“If you have a woman who uses one of these in a bar and it comes up with a false negative, and then she goes ahead and drinks away and delivers a Fetal Alcohol Syndrome baby — I wonder what kind of liability there would be for the state,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
“Is that really the place you want women finding out they’re pregnant?” he added. “Working on the issue before it gets to that point is a much better use of state funds.”