What the CDC’s banned words reveal about Trump’s agenda

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On December 15, the Washington Post reported that analysts from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) were forbidden from using the following terms in their 2019 budget documents:

  1. Diversity
  2. Fetus
  3. Vulnerable
  4. Science-based
  5. Evidence-based
  6. Transgender
  7. Entitlement

The director of the CDC has denied that there are any “banned words” at all, but those who relayed this information to the Post stand by their accounts that they were told not to use those words.

Banning these particular words silences already marginalized Americans — especially women. How can we discuss important aspects of women’s health, like abortion care, without using the word “fetus”? How can we discuss the implications of the Zika virus without being able to say “maternal fetal medicine”? How can we talk about scientific progress in medicine without referring to “science-” or “evidence-based” practices? And are we to completely abandon discussions of and actions regarding the health of transgender and nonbinary people  — especially on the heels of CDC studies that have demonstrated that transgender people are at incredibly high risk for contracting HIV? As emergency physician Dr. Dara Kass reminded many on Twitter, the CDC banned the word “blood” during the AIDS crisis years ago, which led to mass confusion about HIV transmission. And as Mark Twain is thought to have said, history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Relatedly, the department of Health and Human Services (HHS), of which the CDC is a subset, announced that it now believes that life begins at conception. This announcement came soon after a number of anti-choice activists were appointed to senior-level staff positions in the HHS. This statement only builds on the department’s decision to leave out any mention of birth control from its entire strategic plan for 2018-2022, a report that notably used the word “faith” 45 times. These intentional word choices — language typically used among the religious right and anti-choice activists — and omission of language important to pro-choice advocates are directly related to the creation and implementation of anti-choice policies.

This ban and statement further coincide with HHS cutting funding to President Obama’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and reallocating funding to “sexual risk avoidance” programs. The term “sexual risk avoidance” has been defined in recent congressional bills as abstinence-only education, a form of “education” that not only promotes a sex-negative culture but also doesn’t prevent teen pregnancies or the spread of STIs. The State Department has also shifted their language from discussing sex education to sexual risk avoidance, putting overseas harm reduction programs at potential risk.

It seems reasonable to infer that if this ban did not come directly from the Trump administration, then it was issued straight from Trump’s appointees. Banning words central to issues of sexual orientation, gender identity, and reproductive rights makes it clear what the Trump administration fears most: bodies and identities that threaten the status quo. And along with that fear comes the administration’s detailed, coordinated assault on facts and democracy. Erasing identities and concepts that disagree with a particular ideology in a fact-based field like medicine and health research is totalitarian.

This is not the first time the Trump administration has employed this kind of manipulation. Their “thought control,” as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) calls it, extends to the  president’s unending tirade against “fake news,” which is a calculated strategy to disenfranchise and discredit anyone who honestly evaluates Trump’s performance, takes issue with his decisions, or is just a minority. The recent takedown of network neutrality by this administration is further evidence of its disrespect for the open sharing of information.

Now more than ever before, it is our responsibility to use these words, to talk about and shed light on the issues they represent, and to fight back against their erasure. Clearly, those who value these words terrify this administration.  We don’t have anyone on the inside defending us, so we will have to leverage this power to fend for ourselves.

The facts of our existence aren’t going anywhere, no matter how much Trump wishes they would disappear. We’re still here. And we won’t be quiet about it.

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Eliana Stanislawski
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