The CDC's 'Banned' Words Aren't What You Think

A view of CDC headquarters. (Photo: CDC)

In mid-December, the news was everywhere: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supposedly had been banned from using seven words in its communications, according to a story broken by the Washington Post. The words are "entitlement," "diversity," "transgender," "fetus," "evidence-based," "science-based" and "vulnerable."

Government agencies were quick to respond, with the gist of the story being that the words weren't "banned" per se. They were more like "discouraged" — specifically from being used when appealing for funding from Republicans in Congress. The Department of Heath and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the CDC, issued a statement that said it was a "mischaracterization":

“It’s absurd and Orwellian, it’s stupid and Orwellian, but they are not saying to not use the words in reports or articles or scientific publications or anything else the CDC does,” a former federal official, who asked not to be named, told the New York Times. “They’re saying not to use it in your request for money because it will hurt you. It’s not about censoring what CDC can say to the American public. It’s about a budget strategy to get funded.”

Still, that same official said this suggestion about language use is "unprecedented."

So, is this all a lot of hoopla over simply adjusting some language for budgetary reasons? Does it really matter? Well, let's look at the issue in context of other actions by the same administration (and then of course, it's really up to you to decide what you think):

The fact that other words and topics have been removed from government websites since the Trump administration came into power isn't the first we've heard on this issue — or the first time we've heard lots of references to the widely read George Orwell novel "1984."

(That book features a government hell-bent on changing the meaning of words and editing the past. Unlike the fictional story, though, our now-digitized information systems mean it's easier to change what kind of information is available than even Orwell could have imagined.)

Planned Parenthood's comment on the let's-say "disincentivized" CDC words (to be Orwellian about it) describes well why these words shouldn't be easily replaced:

"You cannot fight against the Zika virus, or improve women's and fetal health, if you are unable to use the word 'fetus.' You must be able to talk about science and evidence if you are to research cures for infectious diseases such as Ebola. You must be able to acknowledge the humanity of transgender people in order to address their health care needs. You cannot erase health inequities faced by people of color simply by forbidding the use of the words 'vulnerable' or 'diversity.'"

Even if these words are not "banned," it speaks volumes about the current political moment that a word like "fetus" is considered too political for some lawmakers' eyes or ears. To get the money they need to continue to save lives and ensure health (especially crucial after the deep cuts to the CDC's budget suggested by Trump), the organization has to quit using words that, otherwise, are pretty everyday words.

So: Don't use certain words or don't get your money to ensure public health.

Replacing 'political' language

Editing already undertaken to fit the agenda of the new administration includes the EPA website, which has been gutted, with kids' educational pages on climate change removed. According to a New York Times op-ed by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, "Terms like 'greenhouse gases,' 'carbon' and 'climate change' have been replaced by vague descriptors like 'sustainability' and 'emissions.' In addition, web resources about specific regulations have disappeared."

And according to an NPR report from earlier in 2017, scientists applying for funding from the government have been replacing the words "climate change" with "extreme weather," since the former — while agreed upon by 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists — is considered to be, in 2017, "political" language.

The EPA "removed its website for 'Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments' and replaced it with one called 'Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments,' eliminating over 200 web pages," according to the New York Times op-ed, "including almost all of those pertaining to climate change." The State Department, the Department of Energy and the Interior Department have also removed or changed pages having to do with climate change.

In other wholesale deletions, HHS removed information about LGBT Americans from its website. The department's Administration for Children and Families, for example, archived a page that outlined federal services that are available for LGBT people and their families, including how they can adopt and receive help if they are the victims of sex trafficking.

If this language deletion reminds you of the 1980s, when President Reagan wouldn't name the AIDS crisis — which may have led to thousands of deaths, according to some estimates, as the virus spread with almost no public-health response — you're not alone. Words do matter, and sometimes they save lives — or the opposite.

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