Activism 101: Writing an Effective Letter to the Editor

Quill pen

Update April 4: My letter in response to Deena Sherman’s article (see below) has not been printed as yet, but this morning an excellent reply by my wife April was the lead letter in the Beacon News this morning!

Today a column appeared in my local paper, the Aurora Beacon News, opposing a bill in the Illinois House of Representatives that would hold abortion facilities to the same standards as similar medical facilities.

The piece by columnist Deena Sherman was filled with errors of both fact and logic, so of course I had to write a reply. I thought I’d share it as an example of the kind of strategy we pro-lifers should take when addressing misinformation from the other side.

First I’ll offer four key pointers on writing a letter to the editor in response to an column like this one, and then I’ll share my letter with you in its entirety.

1. Decide what the essential issues are, and focus only on them.

While there were any number of problems with Sherman’s column that I might have addressed, I decided to focus on two main issues:

  1. The faulty logic at the heart of her argument, and
  2. A serious factual error in her portrayal of abortion

First the faulty logic. Sherman approvingly quotes a former state official, who insists no additional regulation of abortion facilities is needed:

Bernard Turnock, former director of the IDPH [Illinois Department of Public Health], wrote in a letter to the Chicago Tribune on Monday, “I oversaw the creation of a rigorous and extensive set of regulations tailored to ensure women’s health and safety at abortion clinics … I am not aware of problems in the current regulatory system that would warrant the changes proposed by HB3156.”

Now, I might have asked if the reason Turnock is “not aware of problems” is the very fact that standards are lower for abortion facilities—and that we haven’t been able to find any convincing evidence that abortion facilities are actually being monitored by the state.

But knowing that my letter would be more likely to get printed if I kept my focus simple, I decided to zero in on the key logical problem, which appears in this statement by Sherman:

Ninety-two percent of Illinois’ counties have no abortion providers. HB3156 would potentially reduce that number further, making it more difficult for women who lack the means to pay for good medical care and/or travel great distances to see a reputable doctor.

Do you see the problem here? Supposedly abortion clinics in Illinois are perfectly safe. But making them match the standards met at other facilities would force them to shut down?

I might have been tempted to address this “counties” issue, which abortion advocates bring up all the time. Do they really want an abortion clinic in every county? Does Illinois really need 92 more abortion facilities, on top of the 22 already aborting 55,000 children in the womb every year?

Those are important questions, but my goal here isn’t to pick apart every problem in Deena Sherman’s column, but to get a letter printed that will educate readers of the Beacon on why HB3156 is needed.

There was, however, one claim of Sherman’s, not directly related to HB3156, which I considered it crucial to address. She wrote that:

[M]ost abortions are the result of heart-wrenching decisions that women and their doctors must make as a result of rape, incest or medical issues that threaten the mother’s health.

I don’t doubt that the abortion decision is heart-wrenching in most cases, but the reasons Sherman cites for why women seek abortions are actually quite rare. Setting the record straight on this was important enough that I decided I could not overlook the point in my effort to stay on-focus.

2. Totally avoid personal attacks—always, every time.

Far too often, I see pro-lifers with the best of intentions undermine their efforts to share the pro-life message by engaging in personal attacks against our opponents. This temptation must be strictly avoided in every case.

If I had, for example, referred to Deena Sherman as a “pro-abort feminist,” or accused her of not really caring about women’s health, not only would I turn off many readers, but I’d be wasting precious words. Most newspapers require letters to the editor to be a maximum of 300 or even 200 words. Use every single one to make your point!

Moreover, I’ve exchanged civil e-mails in the past with Deena Sherman. She once intimated that the Pro-Life Action League is linked with those who use violence in the fight against abortion; I took her to task for it both in personal e-mails and in a letter to the editor, which was printed.

I’m certain that my refusal to take her remarks to heart, choosing instead to reach out cordially, was a key factor in getting that letter printed and setting the record straight on the League’s commitment to nonviolence.

3. Keep your letter short, or someone else will edit it—if it gets printed at all.

As I mentioned above, newspapers have a strict limit on how long letters to the editor can be. If you go over that limit, either your letter simply won’t be printed or—sometimes worse—the editor of the opinion pages will cut your letter down.

Do you want someone else deciding what the most important points in your letter are—possibly someone who does not share your pro-life position or your understanding of the issues?

Certainly not. Maintain control of your remarks by keeping your letter short and to the point—a letter that can be printed as-is, without any revisions.

I follow the rule of keeping my letters to the editor under 200 words. That sometimes means some careful editing—choosing a single word over a more colorful phrase, or reordering a sentence to make it more streamlined and efficient. This is good discipline.

4. Forward your response to the author of the original column.

I’ve made it a practice, when I write a letter to the editor, to forward a copy of my letter to the author of the original article I’m responding to—in this case Deena Sherman—along with some cordial introductory remarks.

Not only does this help to build bridges with our opponents, but it might even help to get your letter printed—and after all, that’s the point.

My Response to Deena Sherman

Here is my response to Deena Sherman—all 199 words of it. Before reading it you might want to first check out the original column if you haven’t done so already, to provide all the necessary context for this:

In her April 1 column, “Why herd women’s rights issue to Ag Committee?” Deena Sherman offers faulty logic and erroneous information in her commentary on HB3156, a bill in the Illinois House which would require abortion facilities meet certain safety standards.

Sherman insists that the bill is unneeded because abortion clinics in Illinois are held to high standards of safety. But then she claims that, if enacted, it would force some abortion facilities to close.

This bill requires ambulatory surgical centers that perform abortions to meet the very same standards as other ambulatory surgical centers. Clearly many abortion facilities aren’t meeting those standards now, if the bill’s enactment would shut them down. Sherman’s logic doesn’t add up.

Sherman also claims that “most” abortions are sought for reasons of rape, incest or protecting the mother’s health. But according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, which researches abortion, 98% of abortions are sought for reasons of “personal choice.” Less than 1% of abortions are sought because of rape, incest or to protect the mother’s life.

In the wake of the horrifying conditions discovered at abortion facilities elsewhere in the country, it’s time for Illinois abortion clinics to meet reasonable standards of safety.

Eric J. Scheidler
Executive Director
Pro-Life Action League

I hope this letter is a good example of the points I’ve outlined: focused on the key issues, firm without engaging in personal attacks and short and to the point.

If ever you write a letter to the editor on the abortion issues, please feel free to e-mail me a copy. I love to see examples of people effectively sharing the pro-life message!

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