“Damn the Diaphragms” by Kylie Johnson

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue


Almost every woman I know remotely or intimately has had at least one, if not multiple, abortions. I’m in the “two” category. Damn those diaphragms.

The first was November 1984, just eight months after I suffered a cardiac arrest. I was living and struggling, as a fifth-year senior, in a 748-square-foot studio apartment on the Stanford campus. An intricate daily schedule of 27 pills was scotch-taped to the wall above my mini-fridge. Things were not good with the boyfriend Rich, a regular senior, who had witnessed me convulse and nearly die in Hawaii in March. He was apprehensive about sex and we had never really been in love. He tried to be a caretaker, but at 21, it was all too much.

While my brain was splintered, my libido was intact. After a campus newspaper gathering that involved some drinking—though I was cautious—a boy named Clay came back to that tiny apartment.

We fumbled around on my floor-bound foam mattress acquired a year prior at the House of Foam in downtown Palo Alto. Clay was nervous and eager like a horse waiting to get out of the gate. I hurriedly squeezed the spermicide jelly into the diaphragm and rubbed it around and on the edges as I had been instructed to do by technicians at the student health center, a few years earlier when I acquired the barrier device. It was the birth control method all my girlfriends and I chose at the time—the pill seemed too “serious.”  As I folded the small rubber frisbee-shaped device and went to insert it, I knew the diaphragm twisted, but the jelly was there, so what the hell.

Oh hell. I’m late. Oh hell. I’m pregnant. Confirmed at the same health center.

Rich and I had had sex maybe four weeks prior, but Clay was the recent one. I told them separately (duh) in person. Rich took the high road and the boyfriend road; he had no question that I had to have an abortion. Clay, though, was distraught—extremely distraught—when I informed him that 1) I was pregnant, and 2) I was having an abortion. I wondered if the foam mattress had been his first time. We worked together at the paper, but I knew little about him. Maybe he was a Mormon from Utah.

Cardiologists admonished about a baby—your heart can’t take it. There was never a feeling or an inkling of a baby. I was not morning sick. I had no sense of a baby.

My mom flew up to the Bay Area for the procedure and did the best she could. Rich did better than he could, going out for dinner and mud pie dessert with my mom and me at the Coyote Cafe, the night before the procedure. We all assumed or pretended he had been the depositor of the sperm.

Rich never questioned me about whether or not he was responsible for the pregnancy, and though I felt mildly guilty, I needed him to at least play the role of the “father,” as my parents knew we had been dating. Injecting another man into the situation, in my mind, seemed unfair to Rich, and would have just further complicated my life, which was at that point, basically a mess.




The second happened in 1988 when Cole, a 6’2” pudgy and frumpy Wallabee-wearing fellow, and I had been out together a few times. He was an editor at the Los Angeles Times—not a big one, but big enough that I thought it was cool. The sexual attraction was minimal, and I was still half-dating my BMW sales manager apartment neighbor Stephen, who had been my sex partner for more than a year. I’d stayed faithful and sober—up until a tipsy night in Beverly Hills. Cole and I drank and dined at some pedestrian cowboy place with sawdust on the floor.

It must have been the Long Island Iced Teas that made Cole really want to have sex with me, and me willing to go along. I didn’t want him to go back to my apartment where Stephen might see us, so I suggested we pop into the bedroom above my parents’ garage, which was close by. I had lived there a few years prior and recalled that there was a diaphragm in its pink box hidden in the salmon tile bathroom cabinet. Nervously retrieving the diaphragm, I was horrified to discover it had disintegrated. All dried up; any remnants were stuck to the box.

The spermicide jelly was there, so I smushed as much of that inside and outside as I possibly could. I considered calling it off, telling Cole I just got my period or something—but it was too late for that.

And late I became. This time was different from the first. I was dreadfully sick.  All I could eat for lunch at my job at the L.A. Times was chocolate ice cream with saltines crushed in it. My breasts swelled instantly—so much so that men at the paper commented about them to me.

I had had no relationship with Cole—really knew nothing about him—but knew the evil thing in me was his. When I called to tell him, he freaked out. I assured him it was all taken care of. I was having an abortion. He freaked further. I hung up.

Stephen was informed in my apartment, where he basically had been living for the previous nine months. I considered telling him that the baby was the product of another man, but he was sweet and loving, and agreed the abortion was right. He offered to pay for half of the $1,250 required, which was a relief, as I barely had the $625 I needed to contribute. Stephen picked me up from the hospital where the procedure had taken place and gently tended to me for a few days afterwards—just like a real man would.


Kylie Johnson wrote this piece exclusively for this issue and uses a pseudonym to protect herself and her former suitors.

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