Social media lit up with anger and concern over the weekend after reports emerged that the Trump administration has banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using a list of seven words and phrases. The purportedly banned words include “fetus,” “transgender,” “diversity,” and “evidence-based.”
Given his track record as president so far, it may not come as a huge surprise that President Trump would censor such words from one of the most important health agencies in the country. Many people immediately expressed concerns about the potential consequences of eliminating these words from the CDC. However, the director of the CDC denies there’s been a ban at all.
According to the Washington Post, the complete list of terms that the CDC is now reportedly forbidden from using in budget documents is: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” An unnamed insider told the Post that the verboten terms were reportedly introduced in a briefing regarding the CDC’s budget documents for next year.
The Department of Health and Human Services gave a statement to ABC News on Sunday denying the reports of a ban on certain words: “The assertion that HHS has ‘banned words’ is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process.” CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald, who was appointed under Trump, also refutes that any terms have been banned.
Fitzgerald tweeted on Sunday: “I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs.”
The director even used two of the reportedly banned phrases in her next tweet, writing, “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.”
But not everyone is buying what the HHS and Fitzgerald are selling. For one, political censorship has already happened under the current administration: NPR notes that under Trump, the National Science Foundation has already been awarding fewer grants to applicants who use the phrase “climate change” in the title or summary of the grant application. People worry that the latest language restriction, even if unofficial, will lead to decreased funding for research and programs that help marginalized groups, including women and transgender people.
This falls in line with the Trump administration’s hostility toward climate change science and policy: Trump has also pulled the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and totally eliminated “climate change” from the EPA’s four-year strategic plan. The Washington Post further reports that the HHS removed questions about sexual orientation and gender identity from two surveys of elderly people.
Now, there’s concern that those seeking to fund research and programs pertaining to trans health and reproductive health could meet a similar fate.
But it gets even more complicated. Writer and trans woman Gabrielle Bellot argues for Them that the ban on the word “transgender” is an attempt to erase the very lives of trans people. Bellot notes that some people will object, and say it’s really not that big of a deal that the CDC will no longer be able to use certain terms like “transgender” in official budget documents, but argues that language censorship matters more than it may seem.
She writes: “Control language, and you begin to control a narrative, begin to control our foundations, begin, even, to control our flitting thoughts and dreams.”
Some medical professionals agree that the banned terms will mean de-prioritizing certain issues. “The words that we use ultimately describe what we care about and what we think are priorities,” Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the School of Public Health at Boston University told the Associated Press. “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,” he added.
The HHS and the director of the CDC continue to deny there’s anything malicious happening, or even that there’s a ban at all. But, given that there’s already been a drop-off in funding for climate change-related grants at the NSF, it’s reasonable to worry that the same will soon happen with various important topics at the CDC. The effect, inevitably, will be less attention and fewer government resources allocated to trans people and reproductive health.
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(Illustration by Sarah Tate / Brit + Co)