CDC Ban: Alarm over Reports Health Agency Forbidden from Using Words Like ‘Fetus,’ ‘Transgender’ and ‘Diversity’
Health leaders in the United States are alarmed about reports that officials at the nation’s top public health agency are being told not to use certain words or phrases in official budget documents, including “fetus,” ”transgender” and “science-based”.
The health community was reacting to a story in The Washington Post which cited an anonymous source who said the prohibition was made at a recent meeting of senior budget officials at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The seven words and phrases — “diversity,” ”entitlement,” ”fetus,” “transgender,” ”vulnerable,” ”evidence-based” and “science-based” — were not to be used in documents prepared for the US Government and Congress ahead of the next presidential budget proposal, the paper reported.
A CDC official confirmed they were given “feedback” from higher ranks of the Government at a recent meeting to reconsider certain language in draft budget documents.
But she said she did not know if there was any specific prohibition about using those seven words. She spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she was not authorised to talk about what happened.
The Atlanta-based CDC is in charge of responding to infectious disease outbreaks, like Ebola and Zika, and tracking a wide range of chronic diseases and other health problems.
For decades, the agency has had a mostly sterling reputation as a source of scientific information. That the agency could be censoring certain language sparked alarm and anger from some public health experts and politicians.
Censorship Reports Spark Anger
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said the reported word ban puts the county “further down a dangerous and un-American path of word and though control”.
Other critics of the alleged language control compared it to the Trump administration’s attempts to kick transgender people out of the military.
Dr Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health, said these things matter “because the words that we use ultimately describe what we care about and what we think are priorities”.
“If you are saying you cannot use words like ‘transgender’ and ‘diversity,’ it’s a clear statement that you cannot pay attention to these issues.”
“Here’s a word that’s still allowed: ‘ridiculous,'” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a statement reacting to the report.
In an email to the agency’s employees, CDC director Dr Brenda Fitzgerald noted the media report and wrote: “I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science and evidence-based institution.”
“As part of our commitment to provide for the common defence of the country against health threats, science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”
A spokesman at the US Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CDC, said in a statement that it was a mischaracterisation to say the CDC was banned from using certain words.
However, HHS officials did not clarify or answer any other questions.
Health Body’s Budget in the Firing Line
Since President Donald Trump took office, a number of federal agencies have moved to downscale data collection on topics like climate change and homeless people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender and to remove information on such topics from some government websites.
The CDC has in the past seemed to signal an interest in less talk and data on certain subjects.
Earlier this year, for example, the HHS proposed deleting a question of sexuality from a federal data-collecting survey. It was restored after an outcry by advocates for the LGBTI community.
The CDC is in a sensitive position. The White House and some Republican politicians have proposed dramatic reductions to the agency’s $US7 billion ($9.1 billion) discretionary budget.
One medical leader from an outside agency, who works closely with CDC employees, told the Associated Press a CDC ban on certain words and terms may not be limited to budget documents.
He said two CDC employees told him agency workers have been told not to use the term “health equity” in presentations or public talks.
The term refers to a goal of removing obstacles like poverty and racial discrimination in making sure people have an equal chance to be healthy.
“What is clearly happening is those people are afraid to use those words in any talks or papers. Everybody’s afraid to do their job right now,” he said on condition of anonymity, because he did not want to jeopardise a working relationship with CDC officials.
A CDC spokeswoman said she was not aware of any guidance that prohibits CDC scientists from using “health equity” or any other words or phrases in presentations or talks.