Bill providing funding for UAA study stalled

A bill funding a UAA research program looking to study long-acting, reversible contraception and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder for $500,000 is currently stuck in the House Health and Social Sciences Committee.

Senate Bill 198 would authorize UAA to enter into a research program that will study the effects of using long-acting, reversible contraceptives on women who are somewhat, or may be, hopelessly addicted, Sen. Pete Kelly, a Republican from Fairbanks and the bill’s sponsor, said in an April 17 House Health and Social Services Committee.

Sen. Kelly said the bill would combat the issue of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder by using long-acting, reversible contraceptives “in a population that is having babies, and that can’t seem to get control of their addiction.”

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Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, is sponsoring SB 198, a bill that would fund a research program at UAA. Photo credit: Courtesy of Alaska Senate Majority

The new three-year study, conducted by UAA’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, will evaluate the effectiveness of providing long-acting, reversible contraception. The study will be testing on voluntary women with substance abuse disorders who are at high risk for unintended pregnancies that may result in prenatal drug or alcohol exposure.

The study would be done in partnership with Alaska Regional Hospital. The bill will also require the researchers to update the legislature every year for the duration of the study.

Amanda Slaunwhite, director of UAA Center for Alcohol and Addiction studies expressed support for the bill. She said approximately 70 percent of mothers who have had one child exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero, will have another.

“It’s important that we figure out how to solve these challenges related to unintended pregnancy and access to substance abuse treatment, especially in this opioid epidemic,” Slaunwhite said.

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Jeff Jessee, dean of UAA’s College of Health, also gave his support of the bill at the April 17 meeting.

“Part of the essential elements of the research is that there are women that don’t choose long-acting, reversible contraception, that either they choose not to have birth control at all, or choose alternative methods to birth control,” Jessee said. “That’s what enables us to have a control group so that we can test out… not where the birth control is effective, but what’s the most effective strategies for wrapping around these women, to help them see that they have control over at least part of their future. Even if they don’t see how they can control their addiction.”

While the bill is rooted in good intentions, some believe the bill is promoting an unethical study.

Fairbanks equal rights activist group, the Hrrrl Scouts, posted on their Facebook page urging their followers to “flood the inboxes of the House Health and Social Services Committee” in opposition to the bill. In a post from April 24, the group provided a sample letter and contact info for representatives on the House Health and Social Services Committee.

“This is the creepy bill,” the post read. “We know [long-acting, reversible contraceptives] work. This is just an attempt to control women’s bodies masquerading as caring. It’s unethical to single out women struggling with substance abuse, especially as there is not a definitive plan in place for the removal of the devices.”

On April 25, the group posted to their page a screenshot of an email response from Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, Democrat from Anchorage and chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee.

“SB 198 will not be moving out of committee. This bill was a well-intentioned but poorly crafted attempt to increase contraception for a vulnerable population,” Spohnholz’s email said.

University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Generation Action chapter also had reservations about the bill, posting April 24 on their Facebook page urging followers to contact representatives in the House Health and Social Services Committee.

“We’re sharing this a little late, but they canceled both hearings on this HORRIBLE bill so here’s the contact info for the Reps on the House Health & Social Services Committee and the bill’s sponsor,” the post read, along with contact information for all of the representatives on the committee.

The study is following up with a two-year experiment that stocked Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder informational posters and pregnancy tests in bars across the state. The study, concluded in 2015, was conducted by UAA’s Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies. Over 2,000 women in Anchorage, Juneau, Homer and Kodiak chose to participate in the experiment. The results were compared to results from Fairbanks, Nome and Dillingham, where only Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder posters were displayed.

Researchers found that bars that offered the pregnancy test dispensers and the posters were more effective than bars that only displayed the posters. The study also discovered 42 women who found they were pregnant and committed to abstaining from alcohol while pregnant.

“It was highly controversial at the time, now it’s not so controversial. It has produced an amazing amount of data. More than we expected we would get,” Kelly said in the April 17 committee meeting.

The bill is currently stalled in the House Health and Social Services Committee.