"I cannot give up this platform to promote complacency and peace when there is a war on my body and a war on my rights," the teen said.
Paxton Smith took a deep breath as she unfolded the piece of paper she'd pulled out from underneath her graduation gown. Bracing herself for what she was about to do next and the possible repercussions of her actions, the Dallas teen launched into the speech she'd prepared. Addressing her peers, their families, and school authorities present at the Lake Highlands High School graduation ceremony, the valedictorian explained that she wouldn't be giving the speech she had originally planned; the one she had submitted to Principal Kerri Jones for approval. Instead, Smith said, she wanted to use her platform to take a stand against something that affected her and millions of other women in the state: Texas's anti-abortion "heartbeat bill."
The valedictorian at a Dallas high school scrapped her approved graduation speech and took aim at Texas’s abortion law. She called the new law, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, “a war on my body and a war on my rights.” https://t.co/iEscZzf6BG pic.twitter.com/lVNYnyXK9K— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 3, 2021
On May 19 — about two weeks before Smith's graduation day — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday signed into law a controversial "heartbeat" abortion bill that bans most abortions at the onset of a fetal heartbeat, which can occur as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and before many people even realize they are pregnant. "Our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion," Abbott said. "In Texas, we work to save those lives. And that's exactly what the Texas legislature did this session."
ICYMI: Gov. Greg Abbott signs into law one of nation’s strictest abortion measures, banning procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy https://t.co/Jd7NgrUecz— Texas Tribune (@TexasTribune) May 21, 2021
The law makes exceptions "if a physician believes a medical emergency exists," but not for cases of rape or incest, citing that "public and private agencies provide... emergency contraception for victims of rape or incest." The passage of the restrictive bill — condemned as "unconstitutional" by abortion rights supporters — weighed heavy on Smith's mind in the days leading up to her graduation. "I was very upset that the heartbeat bill was passing, and I think I was struggling to focus on something that I was working on for school. I had to write down some of my thoughts on paper to get what I felt out, and it was at that point that I decided to change the speech," she told CNN.
A Texas valedictorian, Paxton Smith, went off-script to slam a new abortion law in the state.— Cuomo Prime Time (@CuomoPrimeTime) June 4, 2021
She tells @ChrisCuomo that even when officials threatened her diploma she did not “feel regret about what I said.”https://t.co/6F6W7UC93L pic.twitter.com/EoHtD4JRJm
"I was definitely going back and forth with myself because I fully anticipated that if I made the speech, there would be some negative repercussions socially," she added. Speaking to Lake Highlands Advocate, Smith said she was "concerned the speech wouldn't go over as" she'd hoped since student speakers had been warned that the microphone would be cut off if they deviated from the messages they'd submitted for approval.
Remember the name and face: #PaxtonSmith of Dallas, valedictorian of her high school class, who launched herself on what surely will be a leadership role in and for her generation by defiantly speaking out against the insane “fetal heartbeat” bill in the #GOP-run #TX legislature. pic.twitter.com/GcN5B7Jj2G— howardfineman (@howardfineman) June 3, 2021
"I thought about making the speech at a different venue, like a rally where people wouldn't be upset at what I had to say," she said. "But a large part of the reason I made the speech at graduation was that was the only place I could think of where I could reach so many people from so many different backgrounds. It did cross my mind that this is a family event where people are cheering for their kids, but this is a universal topic, and it affects everyone. I felt it needed to be said."
This took guts. Thank you for not staying silent, Paxton. https://t.co/DlwEgmMRGN— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) June 2, 2021
And so when the time came, Smith gathered her wits and did what she felt she needed to do. The full text of her address is below:
"As we leave high school, we need to make our voices heard. Today, I was going to talk about TV and media and content, because it's something that's very important to me. However, under light of recent events, it feels wrong to talk about anything but what is currently affecting me and millions of other women in the state. Recently, the Heartbeat Bill was passed in Texas.
Starting in September, there will be a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, regardless of whether the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. Six weeks. That's all women get. And so before they realize — most of them don't realize that they're pregnant by six weeks — so before they have a chance to decide if they are emotionally, physically, and financially stable enough to carry out a full-term pregnancy, before they have the chance to decide if they can take on the responsibility of bringing another human being into the world, that decision is made for them by a stranger. A decision that will affect the rest of their lives is made by a stranger.
I have dreams and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does. And we have spent our entire lives working towards our future. And without our input and without our consent, our control over that future has been stripped away from us. I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter. I hope that you can feel how gut-wrenching that is. I hope you can feel how dehumanizing it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken away from you.
And I'm talking about this today — on a day as important as this, on a day honoring 12 years of hard academic work, on a day where we are all gathered together, on a day where you are most inclined to listen to a voice like mine, a woman's voice — to tell you that this is a problem, and it's a problem that cannot wait. And I cannot give up this platform to promote complacency and peace when there is a war on my body and a war on my rights. A war on the rights of your mothers [cheers], a war on the rights of your sisters, a war on the rights of your daughters. We cannot stay silent."
When Smith was done, a round of applause and cheer rose from the crowd. "I felt great. I was very surprised at the response," she said. "It was much louder and more positive than I expected, but as I was walking back to my seat, I was a little bit worried about how the staff was going to handle me afterward." The video of Smith's speech has since gone viral across social media platforms. "When I gave the speech, I didn't realize people who weren't affiliated with LHHS would see it," she said. "I've been getting hundreds of messages applauding what I said. It's been shared on almost every platform I can think of. That's exciting."