Paxton Smith, Texas high school valedictorian, delivers passionate abortion-rights speech

·4 min read

A high school valedictorian in Texas abandoned her approved graduation speech to protest abortion laws onstage, to a shocked audience.    

Paxton Smith, a graduating senior at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, took the stage on Sunday to deliver a speech on culture and media, topics that had been pre-approved by administrators. But the 21-year-old decided she couldn't miss an opportunity to speak on a more important subject: Abortion, which this month had been banned by Governor Greg Abbot in the strictest of terms. 

The Texas Heartbeat Act bans abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, which is usually heard six weeks into pregnancy—often before women even know they're pregnant or before symptoms like morning sickness begin. Texas law makes exceptions for medical emergencies but not rape or incest. "This bill ensures the life of every unborn child with a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion," Abbot tweeted, sharing footage of the bill signing ceremony.  

After pulling her revised speech from her bra, Smith addressed the audience. "It feels wrong to talk about anything but what is currently affecting me and millions of other women in this state," she said, her voice shaking. "Six weeks. That's all women get…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."

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Smith continued, "I have dreams and hopes and ambitions, every girl graduating today does, and we have spent our entire lives working toward 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," she said. "I hope you can feel how dehumanizing it is to have the autonomy over your own body taken away from you." Smith said she couldn't have used the moment, in which a woman commanded a large audience, "to promote complacency and peace when there is a war on my body." 

As Smith left the stage, the crowd burst into applause — which continued on Twitter. "This took guts. Thank you for not staying silent, Paxton," tweeted Hillary Clinton. "We stan a queen. Presenting Paxton Smith, speaking with courage, integrity, and intelligence," wrote author Jodi Picoult. "Brave," added Sarah Silverman. 

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Smith did not immediately return Yahoo Life's request for comment, however she told CBS Dallas she "was a little bit nervous that the microphone would be cut off. They are supposed to cut off your microphone if you go off script, and I went way off script." Smith also told the Associated Press that although she received her diploma, she was informed that administrators had considered withholding it. 

A spokesperson for Richardson Independent School District tells Yahoo Life, "RISD will review student speech protocols in advance of next year’s graduation ceremonies." The spokesperson referred Yahoo Life to a statement included on RISD's graduation programs, which reads, "The students who shall be speaking at the graduation ceremony were selected based on neutral criteria to deliver messages of the students’ own choices. The content of each student speaker’s message is the private, voluntary expression of the individual student and does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the District or its employees."

Smith, who is headed to college at the University of Texas at Austin, told Today, "I felt like ultimately there was no better group of people that I could talk to, because I knew that in that audience, there were people who were going to disagree with what I had to say." Therefore, she added, the support was surprising. 

She also shared her advice for students stepping into the valedictorian role: "Take advantage of the platform, say what you want to say and say what you feel."

Related video: Valedictorian's essay on losing mother goes viral

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Video courtesy of NBCUniversal/Today. For more, check out NBCNews.com.

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