Opinion: Censorship of the CDC

The words you use matter. When writing or editing an article, anyone at the Washburn Review will tell you that they choose their words carefully. Professors writing lesson plans deliberately select terms that will get their point across, are understandable and will leave a lasting impact.

Students writing essays use an online thesaurus to increase word counts and show their thorough understanding of a topic. The difference between good and great words has the potential to impact a grade.

We require our academic world to be full of important words, carefully selected. Why should the political world be any different?

Politicians use slogans, such as Obama’s “Yes We Can,” JFK’s “A Time for Greatness” and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” to inspire voters. The Department of Health and Human Services played down the fact that on Dec. 16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were reportedly barred from using words like “fetus” and “transgender” in their budget reports for 2017.

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As expected, there was immediate outrage. The public remembered back to the early 1980s when the Reagan administration, during its first term, banned the U.S. Surgeon General from using the word “AIDS.” The slogan for ACT UP famously captured the result: “Silence=Death.”

Many people fear, with good reason, that the censorship will bring the same negative consequences as the 1980s. Headlines like, “Trump’s Censorship of Science will Kill People,” from Newsweek and The New York Times’ “Uproar Over Purported Ban at C.D.C of Words Like ‘Fetus,’” show just a few of the reactions. While only seven words and phrases have allegedly been banned, each of these carries power with them.

The seven barred words are science-based, evidence-based, entitlement, vulnerable, diversity, transgender and fetus.

Nancy Krieger, of the New York Daily News, wrote an opinion column saying that this would mean that “the premier U.S. agency entrusted with protecting the public’s health” would have to avoid science, evidence, the discussion of how health and well-being unfairly differs across various diversities including race/ethnicity, income, gender, etc., among other things. The Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC has since denied the claims and the existence of a “banned words” list, but discussions about language sensitivities during budget talks are not uncommon.

In an interview with Vox, Rush Holt, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said, “even if the avoidance of certain words in budget talks is mainly just playing politics, it can lead to a slippery slope of suppression. [Encouraging people not to use certain words] will lead to a kind of self-censorship,” he told Vox. “It’s troubling if ideology is interfering with the use of certain words.”

Whether these seven terms have been banned, or are just not advised, the discouragement from using certain words out of a fear of backlash, or a budget cut, brings to light larger problems. Most importantly, the question of how often “playing politics” leads to innocent people being the unwilling pawns of a larger game, and the consequences of those games.