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What’s Really Going On At HHS? Further Developments Throw “Banned Words” Narrative Into Question

Is CDC more willing to talk about transgender people than we were originally led to believe?

Marilyn Drew Necci | December 21, 2017

The news broke over the weekend, and was received with widespread outrage online: apparently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had banned certain terms from budget documents intended to secure funding for the 2018 fiscal year. This came to light during a budget meeting for HHS subsidiary the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Banned terms included “transgender” and “fetus,” as well as “science-based” and “evidence-based.” And the response from many, especially those in the LGBTQ community, was an uproar.

Now, in a statement sent to Futurism, CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald has doubled down on statements originally made in the wake of this explosive information. “As I have said previously, there are no banned, prohibited, or forbidden words at the CDC — period,” Fitzgerald said to Futurism. “I want to emphasize to anyone who may believe otherwise that we continue to encourage open dialogue about all of the important public health work we do.”

OK, great — but we’ve heard this song before. What reason do we have to believe it now? Fitzgerald elaborates–the instructions were originally offered as part of “a staff-level discussion at a routine meeting about how to present CDC’s budget.” She continued, “It was never intended as overall guidance for how we describe and conduct CDC’s work.”

To put an even finer point on it, an unnamed HHS source told STAT that the vocabulary change was an attempt to obtain support from the current Trump administration, despite its publicly-displayed hostility towards certain subjects relating to health — including, yes, trans people and reproductive rights. “This was all about providing guidance to those who would be writing those budget proposals. And it was very much ‘you may wish to do this or say this,’” the official said. “But there was nothing in the way of ‘forbidden words.’”

The need for fancy footwork in order to keep the Trump administration from getting riled up in the face of actual science being done is one already keenly felt by other departments within the administration, most notably at the Environmental Protection Agency, where references to climate change are disappearing from official websites. Neither Energy Secretary Rick Perry nor current EPA head Scott Pruitt believe that climate change has an explanation in human behavior.

Speaking to NPR, Texas Tech Climate Center director Katherine Hayhoe said, “In the scientific community, we’re very cautious people. “We tend to be quite averse to notoriety and conflict, so I absolutely have seen self-censorship among my colleagues. [They'll say] ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t say it that way, because whatever funding organization or politician or agency won’t appreciate it.’” The result, as tracked by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and reported by NPR, is a 40 percent decrease in grants related to climate change funded by the NSF.

Harvard Forest senior ecologist Jonathan Thompson explained this change to NPR, saying, “Scientists I know are increasingly using terms like ‘global change’, ‘environmental change’, and ‘extreme weather’, rather than explicitly saying ‘climate change’. This seems to be born out of an abundance of caution to limit their exposure to any political landmines in what is already an extremely competitive process.”

So is this what’s happening over at HHS? So it would seem. The unnamed HHS official that spoke to STAT explained that agency budget analysts — the people who received the fateful briefing at which the list of banned words was originally released — were told that some words were more likely to gain Congressional support for CDC’s budget than others. “There was guidance provided — suggestions, if you will,” the official told STAT. “There are different ways to say things without necessarily compromising or changing the true essence of what’s being said.”

In light of all this information, it’s hard not to figure that the explosion of discussion and outrage around the “list of banned words” is incredibly counterproductive to what scientists at the CDC were trying to achieve. In trying to warn their employees to choose their terms carefully in order to keep funding from being disturbed, they inadvertently created way more attention for the portions of their budget they feared would run into trouble than they ever would have if they’d simply kept their mouths shut and hoped for the best.

There may not have been a good solution here for CDC officials saddled with a regressive Repubican Congress and a presidential adminstration that probably needs no further elaboration. However, as Boston University’s School of Public Health dean, Sandro Galea, pointed out to the Associated Press, “The words that we use ultimately describe what we care about and what we think are priorities. 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.”

Regardless of whether the word “transgender” is banned or discouraged, the ultimate upshot here seems to be that neither the Trump administration nor the current United States Congress is interested in doing anything to help our community. It’s no surprise at this point. But it’s still really depressing.