Can Free Pregnancy Tests In Bars Prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Bars in Alaska are now offering pregnancy tests. The pilot program is meant to reduce the number of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome in the state. Alaska has one of the highest rates in the country. Supporters hope the tests will reach women early in pregnancy – a crucial time when they might not know they’re expecting.

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Inside the ladies room at the Peanut Farm bar in Anchorage, a dispenser advertising free pregnancy tests hangs on the wall.

Press the button to get one of the self-administered urine tests, and on this day they’re all out.

The front of the machine features a poster showing a silhouette of a pregnant woman drinking from a bottle. The text at the top says: “Remember the last time you had sex?”

Aimee Rathbone says she didn’t notice the dispenser at first.

“So, I don’t know if it would catch my eye to make me take a test before I drank,” she says.

Rathbone wonders, who’s the target audience? She believes most women will quit drinking when they find out they’re pregnant.

“I think anybody that might suspect it wouldn’t drink except if they were addicted. You know, if they had a drinking problem then maybe it wouldn’t really change things.”

State health officials estimate more than 120 children born in Alaska each year have fetal alcohol symptoms, ranging from mental and physical disabilities to impaired growth to organ damage. Alaska also has a high rate of women who binge drink, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The University of Alaska is conducting the two-year study. Researcher David Driscoll says it will look at whether pregnancy test dispensers in bar bathrooms can be more effective at preventing fetal alcohol syndrome than posters by themselves.

“Most of the strategies that we’ve used in the past have been relatively effective,” Driscoll says. “But we’re always looking for ways to try and improve our ability to provide information.”

So far, the tests are in just four bars statewide, but Driscoll plans to add more soon. He says women are already filling out an online survey they’re asked to take when they use the dispensers.

Between health care, education and social service costs, the state can spend millions of dollars on a person with fetal alcohol syndrome over the course of his or her lifetime. So, advocates say the $400,000 pilot project could have huge benefits.

“A lot of women now understand that they shouldn’t drink,” Deb Evenson says. Evenson is an Alaska-based educator, whose fetal alcohol prevention work spans more than 30 years.

“But a lot of people are still drinking in early pregnancy, and before they know they’re pregnant, and that can cause a lot of damage.”

Evenson applauds the pregnancy tests as something new, even if people have known about fetal alcohol syndrome for decades.

“This isn’t new information and somehow it’s missing big segments of our society. And so I think all the way that we can share the information in every direction is really a good idea.”

Back at the Peanut Farm bar, basketball and hockey play on several giant screens.

General Manager Travis Block says he was wary about putting the pregnancy test dispenser in the ladies room at first. But after learning about the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome in Alaska, and the potential savings from preventing the disorder, he’s a supporter.

“People are going to drink, and that’s what we’re here to do is, you know, provide entertainment. But each person has to make up their own decision on what they want to do with their body.”

He says maybe the tests will make some women think twice about how much they drink and what the consequences might be.

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Casey Kelly is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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