On Censorship and Scientific Integrity in Difficult Times – The Feminist Wire

On Censorship and Scientific Integrity in Difficult Times

By Monica J. Casper and Jonathan M. Metzl

CDC Gets List of Forbidden Words.” This was the headline of a December 15th Washington Post story that alerted the public to behind-the-scenes budget negotiations in which the Trump Administration and conservative forces in Congress appeared to be censoring scientists and administrators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similar headlines quickly followed, and a social media storm erupted.

The seven words were diversity, entitlement, evidence-based, fetus, science-based, transgender, and vulnerable. That these words were allegedly prohibited in relation to the nation’s premier public health watchdog was almost too shocking to believe. Almost.

People of conscience were alarmed, even horrified. This seemed but one more step along the road toward fascism. As the historical record has shown, fascism creeps in slowly; it is tentacular, oozing into all corners of everyday life, often under the radar especially coupled with attacks on a free press. A ban on scientific freedom and information is a cornerstone of fascist regimes.

But the story turns out to be more complicated.

The “ban” was subsequently described as an effort “to reconsider budget language” rather than an outright prohibition. Indeed, immediately after the story broke, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald tweeted “there are no banned words at the CDC.” And some reports indicated that officials inside the Department of Health and Human Services themselves might have suggested these words. According to Slate, “HHS staffers have been telling those at CDC and other agencies that it would be better to avoid any phrases that might attract extra notice from the budget-slashers higher up the chain.”

Given the Trump Administration’s ideological embrace of key features of backlash conservatism, including attacks on science alongside a continual drumbeat of dictums that further divide the country rather than bringing it together, that news of the “ban” spread like wildfire is unsurprising.

In the wake, we created and circulated a statement (below), protesting ideological intrusion into science and public health. Exclusion of any language that fosters advocacy for people’s health, but especially the word “diversity,” seemed the antithesis of functional government. After all, the CDC’s mission is to secure the public’s health. All of the public. No government agency should be censored, or be compelled to self-censor, but especially those agencies charged with human health and survival.

These are challenging times. News is made and remade, often before ink is dry on the page. We do not believe issues such as self-censorship by government officials are “distractions,” diverting our attention from the “real” news. Rather, they expose frameworks in which information is shaped, monitored, construed, and rendered as common sense.

As scientists and writers, we also remain committed to getting it right. We have penned the current essay to offer some context for our original statement and the 258 signatures we collected. It is important to situate this work of resistance inside the emergence of new information.

The bigger lesson here, or perhaps it is a question, is how to engage in resistance when there are so many issues, news moves rapidly, and people are eager, indeed desperate, to raise their voices in protest. We believe in the one-off petition because it is a vehicle for voice. But we also advocate for and participate in larger movements, those that work collaboratively across issues to preserve democracy, protect the public’s health, advance diversity and inclusion, and secure the basic human rights promised by impartial science and biomedicine.


Monica J. Casper is Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Inclusion in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Public Health at the University of Arizona. She is also an affiliated faculty member in the School of Sociology and in Africana Studies. She is founding co-editor with Lisa Jean Moore of the NYU Press book series “Biopolitics: Medicine, Technoscience, and Health in the 21st Century,” as well as managing co-editor of The Feminist Wire. More information can be found at

Jonathan M. Metzl is the Director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University.



December 17, 2017

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) serves as “the premiere health promotion, prevention, and preparedness” agency in the U.S. The CDC is a non-partisan agency inside the Department of Health and Human Services, with an annual budget of $7 billion and 12,000 employees. Its goals include improving the health and well-being of persons in the United States, supporting cutting-edge science and innovative research, responding to public health emergencies, and decreasing death rates.

Given these aims, it is unconscionable and unacceptable that the Trump Administration has banned CDC researchers and administrators from using the following seven words: Diversity, Entitlement, Evidence-Based, Fetus, Science-Based, Transgender, and Vulnerable.

As social scientists, clinicians, public health advocates, and educators, we write in the strongest possible terms against this ban.

Science and health are not partisan issues to be censored or suppressed, but rather serve as national resources that protect us all. Our national health and science bodies have thrived by embracing the diversity that is the United States, and the research they produce sets the gold standard for the free world. Censorship of this sort is scientifically unsound, ideologically driven, and profoundly harmful at individual levels and pathological at cultural ones. It is the antithesis of the principles of human health and flourishing that our nation represents, and that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Banning these particular words places the interests of extreme anti-science and ideologically driven agendas over the health of everyday persons living in the United States. The Trump Administration’s directive, and the silencing effect it will have on medical science, risks transforming the CDC from a national resource into a partisan weapon that serves the few at the expense of the many. And it portends wholly un-American scenarios in which banned words set the stage for bans on research, funding, and, ultimately, health care. Bans of this sort are enforced in totalitarian societies and dictatorships but not, we would hope, in the present-day United States.

Failing to respect the health and well-being of any particular segment of the population represents a failure to protect the health of us all. Please add your name to a petition protesting scientific censorship by visiting the shared Google Doc here. We will release the statement on December 22.