By Nathaniel Herz
Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage.
Legislators reviewing the state’s efforts to combat fetal alcohol syndrome got new details Thursday about a high-profile, state-funded academic study involving free pregnancy tests in bar bathrooms that’s expected to begin next month.
The two-year, $400,000 University of Alaska study is part of a broader state initiative aimed at preventing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, a leading cause of mental disability that has bedeviled legislators and public health officials for decades.
The study generated controversy and criticism when it was announced last year, especially when paired with comments from one of its boosters, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, a social conservative who supports restrictions on abortion.
He said in an interview last year that the study wouldn’t include free birth control, which he said is “for people who don’t necessarily want to act responsibly.”
At a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday, Ryan Ray, an aide to Kelly, said the goal of the study will be to determine whether the free pregnancy tests and the prevention messages are “actually an effective methodology” to raise awareness of the disorder and, indirectly, prevent it.
“The idea is having something so unique it creates that public discussion,” Ray told the committee. “Alaska’s the first place in the world that has tried this strategy.”
Lifetime costs to the public of each case of fetal alcohol syndrome are estimated to be as high as $4.2 million. It occurs when women drink while pregnant.
Cases of the syndrome have dropped sharply in the past two decades but the state still has the highest known rate of the disability. But the rate is in danger of rising again after the loss of federal funding obtained by the late Sen. Ted Stevens.
The study is expected to take place in bars and restaurants in nine communities — including Anchorage and the hub communities of Kodiak, Nome and Dillingham — and it’s being run by the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Circumpolar Health Studies.