The Seven Words You Can’t Say on CDC Budget Proposals

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Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Trump Administration has banned officials at the Centers for Disease Control from using seven words in official documents: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

That’s some pretty Orwellian shit right there, considering that the CDC is dedicated to protecting public health and so all those words are pretty fucking necessary for them to use. Certain populations are more vulnerable to certain diseases, for instance, and no political viewpoint can change that. And don’t even get me started on the importance of making sure our public health policies are evidence- and science-based. In that case, officials were allegedly given an alternative phrase to use: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

YIKES. If the community wishes to die from measles, that shouldn’t change the CDC’s recommendation that they all go get vaccinated.

After the Post article gained traction, the director of the CDC, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, posted a series of Tweets rebutting it and claiming that there are in fact no banned words at the organization. You’d think that would be the end of it, but there are two problems with that response: first, it’s a series of TWEETS, not an actual official statement. Prior to the Trump Administration, we used to expect our government officials to deliver official statements to the public in ways that project an air of responsibility and transparency, not on social media like someone telling the story of the time they saw a knife fight in the Times Square Olive Garden.

The second problem is that throughout her SIX tweets, Dr. Fitzgerald never once used any of the seven allegedly forbidden words. Seriously. I mean, it’s a Twitter account and not an official document but still, you’d think that it would occur to her that using the words in question might go a long way towards convincing the rest of us that the employees who leaked the ban might have just been experiencing some kind of mass delusion.

In follow-up reports it does appear that the story isn’t as cut-and-dried as it seems. The directive to not use the words didn’t necessarily come from the Trump Administration — it may have come from the CDC or the Department of Health and Human Services, and it may have been more of a suggestion to help secure funding from the Trump Administration, by using words that wouldn’t scare them or hurt their little fee-fees.

If that’s true, it makes sense that the CDC director wouldn’t come out and admit it, because she’d be giving up the game and the Trump Administration would know that when funding requests talk about “science and community standards and wishes,” they’re really talking about science-based policy. Here’s where this is still a huge problem, though: there is no alternate word for “transgender” or “diversity,” so the CDC is telling its people basically to not bother getting funding for any public health issue related to trans people or concerning diversity. So whether that directive comes from the Trump administration or from the CDC or HHS, it’s a huge problem.

So yeah, this isn’t a story of the Trump Administration censoring a public health organization — it’s a story of a public health organization self-censoring in order to kowtow to the Trump Administration, and in a way that’s even worse. We expect Trump to be awful, but we expect our science and health organizations to be apolitical and stay true to the science and the public good no matter what. And sadly, we can’t impeach the CDC.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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