I have never fundamentally disagreed with anyone I like more than Sarina Duvall. As soon as she picks me up in her burgundy Mitsubishi from the Pt. Pleasant Beach, New Jersey train station, I can hardly get a word in edge-wise she’s so animated and friendly and candid, her tone touched with a thick Jersey […]
I have never fundamentally disagreed with anyone I like more than Sarina Duvall.
As soon as she picks me up in her burgundy Mitsubishi from the Pt. Pleasant Beach, New Jersey train station, I can hardly get a word in edge-wise she’s so animated and friendly and candid, her tone touched with a thick Jersey accent that comes and goes.
Sarina is 24 years old.
Her dark hair is pulled back in a tight, curly bun and she has clear, tan skin, a product of her mixed Hispanic and Italian background. Her eyelashes are accented with black mascara. Sarina smiles a lot when she talks and she’s wearing a brightly colored knit scarf. Everything about her is warm and friendly.
Sarina is also one of those people you see picketing outside abortion clinics.
Recommended by the NBC page I have yet to interview, when I messaged her on Facebook, I nervously assured her that, though I disagreed with what she was doing, I was open to hearing her out. Sarina seemed delighted to oblige me.
At Green Planet Coffee, she tells me the reason that she protests abortion clinics, specifically the one in her hometown of Tom’s River, is religion.
“But we’re not there to condemn women or to throw stones,” she says. “We offer them prayer and counseling and advice and a hug. We say ‘God loves you.’ We want to lift them up.”
Born in Hoboken, Sarina and her family moved to Tom’s River when she was 10 years old. They were Catholic, though not particularly religious; Sarina says her mother was a drinker who quoted the Bible and then swore in the same breath. Her father was absent.
Teenage Sarina got heavily into alcohol, drugs, sexual promiscuity and bullying others on the streets. Most importantly, she was wildly unhappy.
After a friend passed away in a car accident, Sarina’s mother brought her to church. A woman there asked if Sarina wanted to be “saved.” Feeling like she’d hit rock bottom, Sarina agreed to accept Jesus into her heart. She’s never looked back.
In the car, on the way to the coffee shop, Sarina thanks Jesus twice before I’ve even said a word (Once, because she almost drove the wrong way on a one-way street). I immediately notice and find the sentiment foreign because I’ve never spent much time around people who evoked Jesus’ name for small favors, but to Sarina, it’s second nature.
Sarina already had an inkling that she was against abortion, the medical procedure wherein a pregnancy is terminated, because, she tells me quite candidly, her own mother was the product of a rape.
Her grandmother was assaulted by two men and chose to keep the baby, which remained a family secret until Sarina’s mother was an adult.
“I understand that you feel hurt, shame and disgust. I’m not going to say I can’t see that,” she says when I ask about abortions in cases of rape or incest. “A woman is just as important as her unborn child and I know you feel disgusting and crushed but you should know there is hope. It’s a tough decision my grandmother made to go through that but it’s not the kid’s fault. Their life shouldn’t be taken because of someone else’s misdeed.”
Sarina’s mother, too, was pregnant with her and in the abortion clinic “with her feet in the stirrups” when Sarina says she felt God telling her not to do it.
“That’s two generations of people that could have been aborted,” Sarina says. “I’m living proof.”
While pregnant with her daughter, Shekinah, Sarina attended a Christian festival and spent time at an anti-abortion booth, fascinated by the pamphlets with babies being ripped apart. Then, not long after, a guest speaker came to her church to talk about protesting abortion clinics.
“My heart was so broken,” she says. “But then, because I was also pregnant and full of hormones, I was broken to another level. It was God saying, ‘This is what I want you to do, to be a voice for these children.’”
Sarina got married in 2008 to someone she knew from childhood — a man named Eddy who’d been in the popular crowd and ignored Sarina when he wasn’t making fun of her to others. But at 17, Eddy had been “saved” and changed entirely.
“God spoke to both of us on separate occasions,” she smiles. “He said, ‘This is the one you’re going to marry.’ I was new to Christianity and new to hearing the voice of God. I called up Eddy and he said, ‘Oh, he told you too?’ I was like, ‘Get out of town! This is for real.’”
Sarina got pregnant almost immediately after their wedding because she and Eddy weren’t comfortable with the idea of using contraceptives, especially the birth control pill. Plus, they felt they would be messing with ‘God’s will.’
“Were you ready?” I ask.
“As ready as you can be at 23 years old,” she says. “The first year of marriage was tough with me being a pregnant, hormonal woman.”
“What would you have done if you got pregnant again right after your daughter was born?”
“Without going into detail,” she says, “there are other ways to avoid that. And I like the specialness of the time with my first child. If we had another baby too, we’d have to move because right now, we have a two bedroom that we love so we’d have to use wisdom if we had another baby right away but a baby is a blessing. Always.”
“Do you file abortion under ‘Do not kill,’” I ask, “like in the 10 Commandments?”
Sarina nods, quoting Psalms: “God knew us in our mother’s womb,” she says.
“Absolutely, that’s murder.”
The thing with Sarina is that liking her personality makes hearing what she’s saying confusing. She has the best possible intentions for something I completely disagree with. I tell her the abortion protest videos I watched on Youtube disgusted me and she acknowledges that some of her fellow protesters use a more cruel and violent approach that she doesn’t necessarily agree with.
“There were some signs available for us to hold up [at the protest], but I didn’t like them,” she says.
“Like what?” I ask.
“One said, ‘Babies Are Killed Here.’ I don’t disagree with the statement but I don’t know how warm and Christlike that is,” she purses her lips. “I just think you can be less vulgar. Jesus wouldn’t put a sign in their face and say ‘Baby killer!’”
“What do you do then?”
“There’s a guy and he’s maybe around 86 years old and he goes out there every day and just loves on these people,” Sarina says, admiration evident in her voice. “So many women have decided not to just because someone said, ‘Someone loves you.’ I’d never tell someone they’re going to hell. That’s hate and Jesus didn’t preach that. I wouldn’t throw God in their face because I think it steers people’s hearts away from religion and gives it a bad name.”
“So you don’t agree with using images of aborted babies for the protests?”
“On the pamphlets,” she says. “Some of them show the abortion process. It’s just education. A lot of women go in and don’t know what the doctor is doing. If people were more educated about abortion, I believe there’d be less abortions. There’s the saying, ‘If the womb had a window, no one would get an abortion.’ But no, I wouldn’t hold up a sign with a mangled fetus.”
This is not the idea I had of an abortion clinic protester when I put one on the 100 Interviews list. I imagined that anyone who would take the time to camp out in front of clinics would be pushy, judgmental and humorless. I imagined they’d have tunnel vision when it came to the suffering of the women going through this rough time. The protesters I’d seen were faceless goons in my mind; Evil, heartless monsters whose motivations I couldn’t fathom.
Personally, I am for a woman’s right to choose because I don’t believe life begins at conception and because, as I explain to Sarina, my mother works with children in the bleak and underfunded U.S. foster care system. It seems insane to me to be so hung up on life not yet begun, when children who are already in this world are not properly cared for.
It’s a nice thought to, like Sarina later says, be able to give the baby up for adoption, but how often does that child actually end up with a caring family? In fact, it’s a catch-22. In Florida, where I grew up, countless children languish in unfit foster homes, while laws prohibit loving gay couples from adopting them.
Later on, back in the car, Sarina mentions she voted for Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election because he is against gay marriage. I don’t get a chance to ask this before she drops me off, but I wonder how someone can consider themselves pro-life when one of those babies could grow up to want to marry someone of the same sex. It’s an unanswerable loop.
“What if a doctor told you that you were going to die if you had the baby?” I ask.
Sarina apologizes because she doesn’t have an answer ready for that one, but truthfully I’m relieved. It’s actually nice to watch her thinking it over, rather than immediately and defensively siding with what her religion dictates. Throughout our conversation, her calm voice never loses its animated lilt.
“I really don’t know,” she says, turning her palms up on the table. “Me as a Christian having faith, I’d say I’d still have the child.”
“Even if the doctor says you’ll die?”
She shrugs, “God is greater than that,” she says simply, her voice unwavering. “And if I do go, I’ll be bringing life into the world. I trust God over that and I’d pray that that wouldn’t come to pass.”
“You’d be leaving your husband alone with your daughter though,” I say. “How is that fair to him?”
“Knowing my husband,” she says, “he’d want me to have the baby. Doctors aren’t always right.”
The reason she believes this becomes clear when she tells me that her mother made the opposite decision when Sarina was around 11 years old. Having gotten pregnant at 42, her doctor told her the baby, a girl, would be born with severe defects that would kill her after just two years. The doctor advised Sarina’s mother to have an abortion for medical reasons.
“She took the doctor’s word,” Sarina says. “But what if? A lot of women are told they have no hope but then the baby lives. So there’s that ‘what if?’ factor. It was really tough on her but then she finally accepted it like, ‘My baby is in heaven.’”
“When you talk to these women outside the clinic, what’s the main reason they’re getting abortions?” I ask.
“They’re young,” Sarina says. “They have careers. Their family would be upset. They don’t want children. Some are very young. They’re 14 and having sex and getting pregnant.”
“Why do you think that is?” I ask. “Lack of sex education?”
To my surprise, Sarina agrees. “But I think there should be a form of sex education at home. A teacher shouldn’t be teaching your child sex education,” she says. “Parents say, ‘I can’t talk to my kid about that.’ Well, what are you going to do if your kid comes home pregnant?”
The last time Sarina attended a protest, she tells me, was right before winter started. She brought her infant daughter with her, which offended some people passing by, who she says, gave her the middle finger, beeped their horns and yelled curses.
Truthfully, though I don’t tell Sarina this, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.
“Look,” I say, trying to be clear. “No one wants to be getting an abortion. They’re not gleeful about it, you know? None of the women going into that clinic feel good. It seems to me like you guys don’t get that.”
“We do,” Sarina replies. “The women always walk in there with their heads down. Only one time did a girl walk in with her head in the air, laughing in our faces. But I knew she was hurt. They lash out because they’re hurt.”
I ask for an example and Sarina tells me once there was a man who was wiping tears off of his face when he came outside of the clinic to get something from his car. Sarina’s husband called out to the guy, “Jesus loves you. Choose life, your mom did!”
“He flipped out. He was cursing us out and threatening to bust our faces,” she says. “I thought, ‘This guy is so hurt and that was how he reacted.’ I just know he didn’t want his girlfriend to have the abortion and we hit a sensitive part of him that caused him to retaliate.”
I ‘mmm’ in response, something I do a lot throughout this interview. I’m trying to listen and allow her to speak without leading Sarina to believe I’m agreeing with her sentiments. I honestly don’t want to patronize her and I think she’s smart enough to figure that out; but it’s a really difficult thing to do.
I mention that it’s interesting that most of the protesters against abortion, a women’s health issue, are men. I don’t really get a clear answer out of her when I talk about abortion as a feminist issue. She indicates that she finds that idea to be a misdirection, when the issue should be about the children.
“A lot of men, yeah,” she says. “I think they’re there because they had a partner who got an abortion when they didn’t want her to.” I blink, asking her to elaborate.
“If the man is asking you, ‘Please don’t go through with this,’ then a lot of times it’s complete selfishness,” she says. “He’s willing to forsake everything to be with you and you don’t want it because it’s inconveniencing you?,” she shakes her head.
“Would you want to see abortion made illegal?” I ask.
She nods, “That’d be great.”
I bite my lip, “Okay, but I feel like if there weren’t abortion clinics, ladies would be throwing themselves down stairs,” I say.
Sarina, to my surprise, laughs at my phrasing. “If they really have their heart set, they’ll find another way to do that, I know,” she says. “But it’d still take the rate down.”
We talk about the arbitrariness of the abortion laws in different states and we oddly agree that the legislation should choose one way or the other if it is going to choose at all. Sarina believes all abortion should be illegal and I believe abortion is none of the government’s business, but if it has to be, then it should be legal.
“Who can say this is right when life starts?” she says and I agree, but for completely opposite reasons.
“They always think, ‘It’ll ruin me, it’ll affect my life’,” she says. “Well, you shouldn’t have laid down and done what you did. It’s the farmer’s principle, right? Reaping and sowing. You ‘made a mistake’ and now let’s just erase it really quick and act as if it never happened?”
“What if you’d gotten pregnant before you got ‘saved?’” I ask. “Your lifestyle then wasn’t right for a baby.”
“I still would have kept the child,” she says after a moment. “I love children. Having a child is awesome.”
“I’m not going to say it’s not difficult but abortion is selfish,” she says. “If you go into the clinic and ask to have an ultrasound, they’ll tell you ‘no’ because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, but when you hear that baby’s heartbeat, you might realize ‘I’m actually taking someone’s life.’”
When I conceived of the 100 Interviews, I wanted to meet people who I would never otherwise have the chance to meet. An anti-abortion protester sitting down with someone who is pro-choice to discuss the issue, I thought, could only end in a screaming match. Both sides have created an invisible enemy in each other. It’s clearer in our minds to stand behind our own position without ever having looked into the eyes of someone who believes differently.
Part of the problem with today’s political rhetoric is that by first dismissing our enemies, we dehumanize them. And I don’t blame us. It’s the easy way out. It relieves us of the responsibility of considering each other as complex human beings with individual histories and reasons for our beliefs — right or wrong, true or misguided.
When Sarina goes outside for a few minutes to call her husband, I write down in my notebook: “This is why I’m doing this project.”