Initially, Paxton Smith had planned to talk about TV and the media in her high school graduation speech. The valedictorian at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas had even submitted the prewritten address to school administrators for approval. But when Smith got up to speak at the school’s Sunday commencement ceremony, she didn’t use that speech. Instead, with shaking hands, she pulled out a copy of a talk she’d written on another topic: abortion rights.
“Under light of recent events, it feels wrong to talk about anything but what is currently affecting me and millions of other women in this state,” Smith told the crowd, gathered for commencement on a football field. “Starting in September, there will be a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, regardless of whether the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. Six weeks. That’s all women get.”
The ban, signed into law last month by Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, is set to prohibit abortions so early in pregnancy that many women won’t even realize they’re pregnant until it’s too late. The law also allows people to sue anyone who knowingly “aids and abets” an abortion that violates this ban, or any of Texas’ abortion restrictions—meaning that complete strangers could sue, say, friends and family who help someone obtain an abortion.
Smith’s speech struck a nerve: A repost of a TikTok clip of her speech has been viewed more than 600,000 times on Twitter, in addition to 210,000 views on TikTok itself.
Texas’ new law will almost certainly be challenged in court; courts have blocked several other six-week abortion bans that have popped up around the country from taking effect. However, the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear an abortion case that could pave the way for these bans to one day take effect.
In her speech, Smith spoke of the possibility that all the work she poured into becoming valedictorian would go to waste. As she talked, the crowd cheered intermittently.
“I have dreams, and hopes, and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does,” she said. “We have spent our whole lives working towards our futures, and without our input and without our consent, our control over our futures has been stripped away from us. I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail me, I am terrified that if I’m raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter.”
“I hope you can feel how gut-wrenching it is. I hope you can feel how dehumanizing it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken from you.”
After Smith’s speech, a school district administrator told a local outlet, Advocate Magazine, that officials would now review its policies in order to “prevent something like this from happening again.” Neither Smith’s school nor her district supported her actions, the administrator added.
But Russell Smith, Smith’s father, was totally behind her. Paxton Smith told D Magazine that, ahead of the ceremony, she had talked to her parents about her plan to swap out the speeches.
“It was something that she felt was important, and she had the nerve, determination, and boldness to put herself out there and say her piece,” Russell Smith told Advocate Magazine. “So few people demonstrate this level of maturity and poise, regardless of age.”
Asked if there was anything she’d want people to know, Paxton Smith told D Magazine that she hopes that they vote.
“I would like them to know that they should register to vote for the next election,” she said, “and to stay involved in local elections because those have more power than I think the media gives them credit for.”