Trump Administration Reportedly Instructs CDC On Its Own Version Of 7 Dirty Words

Dec 16, 2017
Originally published on December 16, 2017 5:55 pm

Updated at 3:34 p.m. ET

Trump Administration officials at the Department of Health and Human Services are pushing back on a report saying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a mandate to no longer use words and phrases including "fetus," "transgender" and "science-based."

According to The Washington Post, the directive was delivered to senior CDC officials responsible for overseeing the health agency's budget. The Post broke news of this Friday evening.

By Saturday afternoon, HHS, which includes the CDC, issued a statement, calling the existence of a set of banned words a "complete mischaracterization." Spokesperson Matt Lloyd adds:

"The assertion that HHS has 'banned words' is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process. 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."

The seven words that were to be stricken from official documents being drafted for the 2019 fiscal year budget, according to the Post, are:

  • diversity
  • entitlement
  • evidence-based
  • fetus
  • science-based
  • transgender
  • vulnerable

According to an unnamed CDC analyst in the Post's write-up, the list of the prohibited words was unveiled at the agency's headquarters in Atlanta during a Thursday meeting that lasted 90 minutes. The meeting was reportedly led by Alison Kelly, a top official with CDC's Office of Financial Services. The Post adds that Kelly did not give a reason why the words were being banned, only that she was simply relaying the information. The Post adds:

"In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of 'science-based' or ­'evidence-based,' the suggested phrase is, 'CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,' the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered."

If the report is true, it raises concerns about censorship under the Trump administration. As NPR's Rebecca Hersher reported last month, an NPR analysis found a decline in the number of grants awarded by the National Science Foundation with the phrase "climate change" either in the title or the summary.

Hersher also reported:

"The change in language appears to be driven in part by the Trump administration's open hostility to the topic of climate change. Earlier this year, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, and the president's 2018 budget proposal singled out climate change research programs for elimination."

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, it is not uncommon for career staff at government agencies to self-censor in order to avoid being a political target.

"It is unclear whether the directive came from Trump administration officials or from career staff self-censoring to avoid falling into political traps. Career staff at government agencies often modify language to stop their work from being politicized.

"Yet there's a fine line between necessary self-preservation and needless self-censorship."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Fetus, Transgender, science-based - these are just three of the seven words and phrases the Trump administration has reportedly banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using in any official documents for next year's budget. That's according to reporting from The Washington Post. We called one of the reporters at The Post who wrote the story, Lena Sun. Thanks for joining us.

LENA SUN: You're welcome.

SUAREZ: Now, to be clear, this isn't a blanket ban. The prohibition only refers to words used in budget documents, which any administration has discretion over. But why would the administration want to be so specific about what words to avoid in budget proposals from the CDC?

SUN: That is a very good question. And we have been trying to get the answer to that. As you know, we are now in the budget process where federal agencies are drafting their narratives and sending them higher up the chain. And then, ultimately, the president's budget is presented to Congress in early February. And that process is overseen by the Office of Management and Budget. It is - and then, you know, instructions flow down from there to the agencies.

The CDC is part of HHS. And as part of the budget process - the normal budget process, these budget analysts were told last week, well, as you're drafting stuff, these - here are the words you should be avoiding. And the three words that we're getting bounced back in written drafts were - entitlement, diversity and vulnerable. And then in addition, the CDC budget official told the participants there are additional words that were going to be conveyed verbally, and those were - fetus, transgender, evidence-based and science-based.

In some instances, the CDC official gave an alternative for some words. For example, instead of saying evidence-based or science-based, there was sort of this clunky longer phrase saying the CDC relies on science, bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes, which is kind of long. In other cases, there were no replacement words that were immediately offered.

SUAREZ: Have you gotten any reaction from people at the CDC who, in budget proposals, will have to account for, let's say - I don't know - funding for Zika research without using the word fetus or discuss unvaccinated communities without calling them vulnerable?

SUN: No, I haven't. But the person who told me this indicated that this information was being provided to the small group of folks who draw up the budget documents. They're called budget narratives, which describe what an agency's mission is, you know, what it does and what its vision is for the future.

The broader pool of scientists and researchers don't take part in that. So - but I think by now, because the story has gotten quite a bit of traction, people are aware. We have received tons of emails from outraged scientists and researchers and advocacy groups about the use of - or, you know, why these words should not be used.

SUAREZ: We have only a short time left. Have you been able to figure out whether, in previous administrations, words have been prohibited from CDC or any other budgets?

SUN: My understanding from the reporting so far is that words that might have an ideological bent or be controversial, like fetus or transgender - this kind of restriction on language has not happened before, at least at the CDC.

SUAREZ: That's Lena Sun. She's a national reporter at The Washington Post. Thanks a lot, Lena.

SUN: You're welcome.

SUAREZ: And NPR reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC for a statement. HHS spokesman Matt Lloyd responded with a quote - "this assertion that we've banned words is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.