The Unexpected Reason Alaska’s Bars Are Giving Away Pregnancy Tests

In an effort to curb fetal alcohol syndrome a state-funded project wants women to think twice before bellying up to the bar for another cocktail.

(Photo: William Andrew/Getty Images)

Jun 16, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Cute outfit? Check. Designated driver? Check. Pregnancy test? That’s one item that’s probably not on the night-on-the-town prep list of the average American woman. But in an effort to counter skyrocketing rates of fetal alcohol syndrome, Alaska’s government is funding a research project that will put vending machines with free pregancy tests in the restrooms of 20 bars across the state.

This pee-on-a-stick-before-partying idea isn’t entirely new. In order to curb fetal alcohol syndrome in Minnesota, the nonprofit organization Healthy Brains for Children put pregnancy test dispensers in a Minneapolis-area bar in 2012.

However, since Alaskan women of child-bearing age are 20 percent more likely to binge drink than their peers across the nation, Alaska has the highest known rate of the syndrome, which causes birth defects and other physical and mental problems in babies. On top of the human costs, according to a 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fetal alcohol syndrome also costs the U.S. economy $3.6 billion annually.

Depending on how much alcohol a pregnant woman consumes, an in utero fetus can develop the syndrome within a month of conception, making early notification of pregnancy an essential part of prevention. Back in March, Alaska Sen. Pete Kelly proposed a bill that would fund the initiative. Although the University of Alaska will run the project, Healthy Brains founder Jody Allen Crowe agreed to help out.

Starting in December, the vending machine pregnancy tests will be completely free to female patrons of the bars, thanks to $400,000 allocated by the state. Each test will come labeled with warnings about fetal alcohol syndrome. The dispenser will also feature a poster about the dangers. The project will only give away 5,000 free tests, so Crowe and the University of Alaska researchers hope that even if women don’t actually head to a bathroom stall with one, the accompanying messaging will help educate the public about the risks of drinking while expecting.

“This is not a strategy for the chronic alcoholic who is drinking regardless of whatever message they see,” Crowe told the Alaska Daily News. “This is really focused on the 50 percent of unexpected pregnancies, to find out they are pregnant as early as possible.”

Reducing the rate of unexpected pregnancies by ensuring that women have access to birth control and that girls are taught sex education in school would also be a smart way to reduce the number of infants born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Although the Alaska researchers will make sure free condoms will also be available in the restrooms, Sen. Kelly opposes providing free contraceptives.

Crowe hopes that just as having a designated driver is now a cultural expectation (albeit one that far too many Americans ignore), taking a pregnancy test before heading out for a night on the town will become the norm too.