Karen Fratti
December 18, 2017 3:16 pm
Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Department of Health and Human services provided officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with a list of seven “banned words,” and people on social media rightfully lost their collective mind. Because it’s pretty terrifying that the Trump administration would ban words like “transgender,” “fetus,” “science based,” or “diversity” from any CDC or HHS budget proposal.  Other words on the list were equally disturbing, such as “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” and “evidence based.” According to the initial report, another HHS agency also received similar guidance.

Over the weekend, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald issued a statement on Twitter writing that she understood people’s consternation that the government would try to ban words and insisted that it was more complex than that.

“You may be understandably concerned about recent media reports alleging that CDC is banned from using certain words in budget documents. I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution,” she wrote, which some public health officials and people in the science community took to be sort of a non-denial denial.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) tells HelloGiggles that her statement fell flat. “The statement seems a little weak to me — and it does not explain what direction actually was given regarding these words at the meeting last week. I would have liked to see a statement that explained what happened at that meeting. And if this did not represent official policy, perhaps there needs to be a reprimand of the person who supposedly issued the directive with the banned words at the meeting,” he says.

That’s because she didn’t deny that the words were on a list (because they are on a list), she merely attempted to put out some public relations fires by assuring us that “banned” might not be the perfect word to use. HelloGiggles’ request for comment from the CDC and HHS was not immediately returned.

The whole “you say tom-ah-to, we say tom-ay-to,” semantic argument is just not good enough. Anytime a government issues some guidance about what kind of language its researchers can use if they want to get funding for their programs, it’s an issue.

According to Vice, HHS spokesperson Matt Lloyd told the Post that “[HHS] will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans. HHS also strongly encourages the use of outcome and evidence data in program evaluations and budget decisions.” He also issued a statement to Stat echoing Fitzgerald’s statement that banned” was a 

So if they words aren’t “forbidden,” what are they?

The list of words was provided to public health officials as something to consult when drafting budget proposals. So, if an agency is working on programs to provide much needed HIV prevention awareness campaigns to the “diverse,” “vulnerable” “transgender” community, which is disproportionately affected by the preventable virus, it should find other ways to say that if they want additional funding. Likewise, the agencies — which deal only in science and evidence based health issues — can’t use those words to talk about women’s health care or find cures for diseases like Zika, which primarily affects a “fetus.”

Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, put it this way in a statement:

Grossman, whose organization doesn’t get funding from the CDC, is still concerned about the overall implications of the “ban.” He tells HG, “The banning of words is inconsistent with the pursuit of science. Scientific study, including medical and public health research, requires precision of language, and forcing researchers and practitioners to jump through hoops to avoid certain words — or possibly avoid certain topics altogether — makes for bad science.”

Other medical professionals and researchers agree.

If the list isn’t direct censorship, since officials can technically use the words, it will lead to censorship nonetheless. It also normalizes the conservative, Republican agenda, by acknowledging that they’re touchy about things like women’s reproductive rights and the humanity of transgender people (or any “diverse” or “vulnerable” community).

Along with the list of seven words, officials were given substitute words to use. So instead of saying “fetus,” a biological term, officials were told to use “unborn child” instead, which is a way to define life that goes against all medical science and could sway some Mike Pence-type Republicans to sign off or not sign off on budgets. This is totally backwards.

It’s like how you can wear sneakers to a black tie event, but the doorman might not let you in because there’s a dress code. It’s like the CDC director saying that this is about a “budget strategy” and not in any way meant to impede research into health issues that affect the majority of Americans. A former CDC official told Paste:

That this is *just* about a “budget strategy” is not by any means better, especially if you care about public health and science, and you should definitely not let anyone tell you that it’s not that big of a deal. For one, not being able to use “grown up” words to request money for health research from ideologues is not something free, not-fascist-at-all societies do. Eventually, we’ll have to start pretending that “dinosaurs” didn’t exist because some backwards Congress member doesn’t remember them from Bible study. That’s not crazy: We’re already there if health officials and policy makers have to say “unborn child” and not “fetus” when talking about reproductive health and rights.

Even more infuriating than the list of banned words, possibly, is the conversation that’s been surrounding it this weekend. Don’t let the headlines get you all twisted. The debate about whether or not the words are “banned” or just “recommendations” is an insult to our intelligence and our health.

Dancing around language and kissing conservative, sexist, bigoted butts to get funding for research is why LGBTQ health issues were ignored until the 1980s, when an agency finally acknowledged that bisexuals existed and were at risk of getting HIV. It’s why we know more about male erection pills’ side effects than a woman’s clitoris, and don’t treat poor people for free or little cost because we can’t hypothesize that poverty in and of itself is a public health issue. Not using the word “fetus” or “transgender” denies the very existence of both. Denying that there are “vulnerable” communities ignores their needs. A health agency recommending that scientists not use the word “science” or “evidence” is just absurd.

Grossman tells us that there’s not much more to do than write to their Congress members and “let them know that they want their tax dollars to be spend on evidence-based programs and on high quality research to inform that evidence base.”

He adds, “Let them know that the ideological banning of words has no place in our government.”

Words matter. Especially when it comes to public health issues. The Trump administration has done a lot of unfathomable things in the past year. Advising people about the language they use to do medical research and public health outreach so that they don’t offend a senator who thinks a fetus feels pain (it doesn’t) and thinks prayer is an answer to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is next level. Rest up over the holidays, because things aren’t going to get any easier going forward and the only way out of this is to start electing people who believe in science.