Uproar over White House's purported ban of 7 words, including fetus, transgender, diversity

Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at agency headquarters in Atlanta, on Dec 5, 2017.
Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at agency headquarters in Atlanta, on Dec 5, 2017. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST/MELISSA GOLDEN

WASHINGTON (AFP, WASHINGTON POST) - A reported move to ban the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using words including "fetus," "diversity" and "transgender" in budget-related documents triggered outrage, astonishment and calls for the decision to be reversed on Saturday.

The Washington Post reported late on Friday (Dec 15) that CDC policy analysts were told of the forbidden words and phrases at a meeting on Thursday with senior officials who oversee the agency’s budget. The seven words and phrases are "vulnerable", "entitlement", "diversity", "transgender", "fetus", "evidence-based" and "science-based".

In a 90-minute briefing on Thursday, policy analysts at the nation's leading public health institute were presented with the menu of seven banned words, an analyst told the paper. 

The reaction in the room was "incredulous," the longtime CDC analyst told the Post. "It was very much, 'Are you serious? Are you kidding?'"

The CDC has a budget of about US$7 billion (S$9.4 billion) and more than 12,000 employees working across the nation and around the globe on everything from food and water safety to heart disease and cancer to infectious disease outbreak prevention.

Alison Kelly, a senior leader in  CDC’s Office of Financial Services, told the analysts that “certain words” in the CDC’s budget drafts were being sent back to the agency for corrections.

Faced with a growing backlash, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, termed the reported ban on use of the words a "complete mischaracterisation".

"Among the words forbidden to be used in @CDCgov budget documents are 'evidence-based' and 'science-based.' Here's a word that's still allowed: ridiculous," the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote on its Twitter account.

Michael Halpern, the deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy, said "effectively tackling public health challenges means being honest and open about risks and who faces these risks."

"To prevent the agency from losing its legitimacy, CDC Director Fitzgerald must speak up now to reinforce the centrality of science to the agency's work," Halpern wrote in a blog post.

The March for Science, which saw thousands of people protest in Washington and elsewhere earlier this year, called for the reported decision to be reversed.

"We call on the administration to remove this ban and on our representatives to protect the scientific communities right to openly discuss their research and its impact on our world," it said on Twitter.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, which advocates for women's rights to abortions, added: "Forbidding scientists & researchers from using medically accurate terminology amounts to yet another backdoor tactic to curtail our basic rights & freedoms."

The Department of Health and Human Services pushed back against the report.

"The assertion that HHS has 'banned words' is a complete mischaracterisation of discussions regarding the budget formulation process," spokesman Matt Lloyd told AFP by email.

"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 question of how to address such issues as sexual orientation, gender identity and abortion rights - all of which received significant visibility under the Obama administration - has surfaced repeatedly in federal agencies since President Donald Trump took office.

Several key departments - including Health and Human Services, which oversees CDC, as well as Justice, Education and Housing and Urban Development - have changed some federal policies and how they collect government information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

In March, for example, HHS dropped questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in two surveys of elderly people. HHS has also 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.