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Will Pregnancy Tests In Alaska Bars Dissuade Moms-To-Be From Drinking?

A free pregnancy test dispenser hangs next to a condom dispenser in the women's restroom at the Peanut Farm bar in Anchorage.
Anne Hillman/KSKA
A free pregnancy test dispenser hangs next to a condom dispenser in the women's restroom at the Peanut Farm bar in Anchorage.

"Remember the last time you had sex? Were you drinking? Alcohol use during pregnancy can cause lifelong problems for the child."

That's part of the warning on a poster in the women's bathroom at the Peanut Farm bar in Anchorage. It depicts the silhouette of a pregnant woman guzzling straight from a bottle. And it's affixed to a pregnancy test dispenser hanging on the wall.

The Peanut Farm and a few other bars in Alaska have begun offering the free pregnancy tests as part of a two-year, state-funded pilot project. (Condoms are also made available, though they're not part of this project).

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

The program aims to reduce the number of babies born with these symptoms. Supporters hope the tests will reach women early in pregnancy — a crucial time when they might not yet realize they're expecting.

The University of Alaska Anchorage is conducting the project, which runs through June 2016. David Driscoll, director of the university's Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies, who runs the study, says it will assess whether providing pregnancy test dispensers along with the warning posters in bar bathrooms is more effective at preventing fetal alcohol syndrome than simply displaying the posters by themselves.

"We're always looking for ways to try and improve our ability to provide information," Driscoll says.

So far, the dispensers have been installed in just four bars statewide, but Driscoll plans to add more soon. Women are encouraged to take an online survey when they use the dispensers.

Advocates say the $400,000 project could have huge benefits. The state can spend millions of dollars on health care, education and social services for a person with fetal alcohol syndrome over the course of his or her lifetime.

"A lot of women now understand that they shouldn't drink [while pregnant]," says Deb Evensen, an Alaska-based educator whose work on fetal alcohol syndrome prevention 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."

And, Evensen says, while people have known about fetal alcohol syndrome for decades, the message isn't always heard.

"A lot of women now understand that they shouldn't drink [while pregnant]. But a lot of people are still drinking ... before they know they're pregnant — and that can cause a lot of damage."

"This isn't new information and somehow it's missing big segments of our society," says Evensen. "And so I think all the ways that we can share the information in every direction is really a good idea."

The Peanut Farm's general manager, Travis Block, says he was wary at first about putting the pregnancy test dispenser in the women's restroom. But after the University of Alaska researchers helped him understand the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome in Alaska and the potential savings from preventing it, he became a supporter.

"People are going to drink, and that's what we're here to do is, you know, provide entertainment," he says. "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.

Aimee Rathbun, at the bar watching a college hockey game, says she believes most women would quit drinking if they learned they were pregnant. But in the Peanut Farm bathroom, she didn't notice the dispenser at first.

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

But it seems the dispenser is catching the eyes of others. On that day, at least, it was empty.

Copyright 2015 KTOO

Corrected: May 12, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly refer to Aimee Rathbun as Amy Rathbone.
Casey Kelly
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