Date: December 19th, 2017

Gina Desiderio

In yet another strike to reason, science, and equality, there may now be seven words that federal agencies should avoid:


Much of the media attention is now circling around whether this was an act of censorship from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in their oversight of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as other agencies. In addition to these seven words, employees at the State Department have been told to call sex education “sexual risk avoidance,” in an attempt to rebrand the vastly unpopular and ineffective “abstinence-only-until-marriage” programs. Another HHS agency was told to use “ObamaCare” as opposed to the “Affordable Care Act.”

In a series of tweets, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald responded that

“…there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs…CDC has a long-standing history of making public health decisions based on the best available science and data and for the benefit of all people—and we will continue to do so. As part of our commitment to provide for the common defense of the country against health threats, science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

In a statement, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesperson Matt Lloyd said:

“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.”

So what’s really happening here? It’s hard to keep up with the reports and responses, and it’s clear we don’t know exactly what the truth is.

Perhaps this is blatant censorship. Perhaps this is a strategy for federal employees to “fly under the radar” when submitting documents for budget approval.

But does it really matter? Censorship or strategy, it’s irresponsible, all the same.

Using science and evidence is the most effective and efficient way to use taxpayers’ money to achieve positive outcomes. Significant health disparities persist; people of minority groups (whether it’s race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, or citizenship status, for example) are disproportionately affected by these disparities, and their unique needs must be addressed. A more just and equitable world supports and empowers all people to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine responded to the reports of banned words:

“If it is true that the terms “evidence-based” and “science-based” are being censored, it will have a chilling effect on U.S. researchers—who may question whether their advice is still welcome – as well as on the quality of the counsel actually rendered to government. Other supposedly banned words—“diversity,” “entitlement,” “fetus,” “transgender,” and “vulnerable” —are equally important to the CDC research portfolio, and banning them is turning our backs to today’s reality. Such a directive would be unprecedented and contrary to the spirit of scientific integrity that all federal departments embrace. Although the guidance to CDC staff to not use certain words reportedly pertained to budget documents, it also sends a dangerous message that CDC’s broader research and public health mission could be unduly politicized as well.”

This censorship—whether it’s blatant or insidious—threatens the health and well-being of all Americans. In what has unfortunately become the refrain of this year, our President and CEO Pat Paluzzi continues to assert, “Public health issues shouldn’t be political issues.”

Now, as always, Healthy Teen Network remains committed to a world where all adolescents and young adults lead healthy and fulfilling lives. We stand by our guiding principles, even when the very essence of these principles is threatened every day by this administration that continues to prove it is aggressively hostile toward supporting and empowering all people to thrive.

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About the Author

Gina Desiderio, Healthy Teen Network Director of Communications, has over 10 years of capacity-building and project management experience, supporting professionals to provide programs and services to empower youth to thrive.

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