CDC denies word ban, says guidelines are limited to budget presentation

Seven words and phrases, including "science-based" and "evidence-based," were discussed in a CDC meeting about how to present its budget.

Reports emerged over the weekend that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was instructed to avoid a list of “forbidden words,” including “fetus” and “evidence-based,” in its official budget documents for 2019.

Policy analysts were told of the list in a 90-minute briefing with senior CDC officials, the Washington Post reported. The other forbidden terms, according to a longtime CDC analyst who attended the briefing, are “diversity,” “entitlement,” “science-based,” “transgender” and “vulnerable.”

The guidelines offered alternative phrases for some cases, but not for others. For example, the suggested replacement for “science-based” or “evidence-based” would be “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the Post reported

The news drew backlash from advocacy groups and some Democratic officials, who railed against the apparent attempt to censor the federal agency. And it’s not just the CDC; the analyst told the Post that other parts of the Department of Health and Human Services have likely been given the same guidelines.

CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., denied the existence of a ban.

The guidelines were discussed at a routine meeting about how to present the agency's budget and do not apply to how the CDC conducts and describes its work, Fitzgerald said in a statement sent to NBC News.

"The CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution, providing for the common defense of the country against health threats. Science is and will remain the foundation of our work," she said. "As I have said previously, there are no banned, prohibited or forbidden words at the CDC—period."

“They’re saying not to use it in your request for money because it will hurt you. It’s not about censoring what C.D.C. can say to the American public. It’s about a budget strategy to get funded,” said a former federal official to the New York Times.

But even if the guidelines are meant to improve the budget’s chances of approval by a Republican-controlled Congress, they are still alarming. Various CDC offices rely on federal funding to conduct research in several areas that include some of those terms, including the search for a vaccine against Zika, which can cause birth defects, and HIV-prevention measures for transgender people.

The analyst could not remember a time when certain words would be banned from budget materials because they were deemed controversial, the Post reported.

“In my experience, we’ve never had any pushback from an ideological standpoint,” the analyst told the Post.