Under fire for his remarks on birth control in this Daily News Q&A, Sen. Pete Kelly told colleagues today that his FASD prevention think tank might one day embrace contraception as a prevention tool but is instead focused on free pregnancy tests for now.
“We’re hesitant to say, ‘Use birth control as your protection against fetal alcohol syndrome,’” Kelly said on the Senate floor. “Binge drinking is a problem. If you think you could take birth control and then binge drink and hope not to produce a fetal affect baby or a fetal alcohol syndrome baby … you may be very wrong.”
I spoke to Kelly on Wednesday, looking for details on his stated goal to eradicate fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in Alaska by 2034. What was he planning, exactly? Kelly announced that university researchers would be studying a proposal by the group to give away free, publicly funded pregnancy tests in bars.
A woman can do permanent, profound damage to her child by drinking within three weeks of conception, likely before she knows she is going to have baby. About half of pregnancies in Alaska are unintended.
I asked Kelly if he supported giving away birth control in bars too, given that many FASD experts consider improved contraception use to be a pillar of any prevention effort.
No, he said.
“Because the thinking is a little opposite,” Kelly replied. “This assumes that if you know (you are pregnant) you’ll act responsibly. Birth control is for people who don’t necessarily want to act responsibly.”
Asked if the act of using birth control was, in itself, acting responsibly, Kelly said, “maybe, maybe not.”
Kelly’s stance seemed to soften today. He told his colleagues that birth control is not off the table for his Empowering Hope group, which also includes Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna Fairclough and former University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton, among others.
“Later on, maybe birth control gets pulled into the debate or into the operational plan. It just isn’t right now,” he said.
The floor speech prompted another salvo from Democrats, who characterized Kelly as “doubling down” on resistance to contraception as a state-funded FASD prevention effort.
Here are Kelly’s remarks to the Legislature, in part:
Just so you know, so that the debate doesn’t just happen from ear to ear, and person to person in the hallway. There was a discussion about how birth control relates to fetal alcohol syndrome and how we might address that. Because it got kind of caught up in the blog-o-sphere, it got turned into something like a ‘war on women,’ or something like that. That’s not important.
What is important I think is that we realize that the part of the operational plan for Empowering Hope are, are these pregnancy test kiosks and dispensers that are going to be put in bars and restaurants and places that people might drink.
So that women will do the responsible thing when they know they are pregnant. We know that 90 percent of women when they find out they are pregnant. When they are empowered with information, they do the right thing and they stop drinking.
The use of birth control, if that works. If that is a, if that’s one of the solutions to stopping fetal alcohol syndrome, I’m sure that the leadership in empowering hope will go down that road as well.But right now, what we’re doing is, through an academic study is we’re implementing these pregnancy tests. One of the things as they’re gathering information to implement this academic study, that they find out there is a just a higher level of drinking among pregnant women in Alaska. Not exactly sure why, but it’s something they want to find out and see how these pregnancy tests relate to that. … Can we actually drop the number of fetal alcohol syndrome births because of the pregnancy tests?
… The problem with birth control now, as I said, this is an operational plan that is in its infancy. One of the questions that we have about birth control is, if you have people who are binge drinking or are chronic drinkers.
We’re hesitant to say, ‘Use birth control as your protection against fetal alcohol syndrome.’ Because, again as I say, binge drinking is a problem. If you think you could take birth control and then binge drink and hope not to produce a fetal affect baby or a fetal alcohol syndrome baby, that you may be very wrong. Sometimes these things don’t work. Sometimes people forget.
Sometimes they administer birth control improperly and you might produce a fetal alcohol syndrome baby. That would be irresponsible of us until we get better information on that to say, ‘Well, maybe that is a good idea.’
But right now what we’re doing is we’re implementing an academic study to see what pregnancy tests do. And the impact they can have on fetal alcohol syndrome. Later on maybe birth control gets pulled into the debate or into the operational plan. It just isn’t right now.
… (The pregnancy test proposal) is just a piece, a part of what we hope to do to eradicate fetal alcohol syndrome.
Originally published March 24, 2014 by KYLE HOPKINS in Anchorage Daily News.