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TAG Statement on Forbidden Words in Budget Documents

Reports of words being prohibited in the budget plans of agencies under the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) indicate a horrifying acceleration of the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine science and public health

New York, December 20, 2017 – Treatment Action Group (TAG) joins the chorus of rational voices expressing outrage at reports that HHS agencies have received instructions to avoid words unpalatable to the Trump administration in their budget requests.

While certain officials are now suggesting the prohibitions represent recommendations designed to smooth the budget process by placating extremist ideologues within the Republican Party, this would not lessen concerns even if true. Whether the words are explicitly forbidden or recommended against, the manipulation of language to stymie the ability of Federal Government agencies to accurately describe important science- and evidence-based work must be rejected. The administration’s documented scrubbing of the term “climate change” offers a clear precedent that lends credibility to reports of expanded censorship efforts (reports that continue to appear and add to the list of targeted agencies1).

According to a recent article,2 there is explicit written guidance from HHS prohibiting the words “diversity” and “vulnerable.” In a strategy that appears designed to facilitate deniability, other prohibited words and phrases—including “transgender,” “evidence-based,” “science-based,” “entitlement” and “fetus” — are only being conveyed verbally.  In lieu of the term “science-based,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reportedly been provided the following text: "CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

Given what is known about the ideology of the Trump administration, there is little doubt what “community standards and wishes” are being referred to: those of the extreme right wing including self-styled evangelical Christians, communities with a long history of rejecting scientific evidence they feel is incompatible with their beliefs. As Elizabeth Sommers and Sandro Galea have written in their opinion piece for the Boston Globe: “at times in world history, community standards and wishes shared the consensus that the earth was flat."3

Federal agencies responsible for the advancement of science and public health must not be restricted from using words that accurately describe their work; such prohibitions represent an Orwellian enshrining of ideological prejudices as policy. Prejudices that the majority of Americans—and the majority of human beings—do not share. In the case of the word “transgender” the prohibition attempts to render invisible an entire population.

Left unchallenged, these attempts to control language will undermine the ability of science to continue to improve our lives and take the nation down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism. It is vital that all concerned citizens speak out against these prohibitions now.

Below, we also share important statements from other organizations:

AIDS United, NASTAD, NCSD, NMAC, The AIDS Institute          

American Association for the Advancement of Science (and 41 collaborating organizations)

American Psychological Association

Fenway Health

Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA)

GLAAD

Infectious Diseases Society of America, HIV Medicine Association and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society

Results for America

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
 

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1.  Juliet Eilperin and Lena H. Sun.Trump administration targets certain words, and the bureaucracy pushes back. Washington Post, December 21, 2017 
2.  Juliet Eilperin and Lena H. Sun. Debate erupts within HHS about 'words to avoid' such as 'vulnerable,' 'diversity' and 'entitlement.' Washington Post, December 18, 2017 
3.  Elizabeth Sommers and Sandro Galea. How censorship can harm public health. Boston Globe, December 18, 2017