The valedictorian at a Texas high school went off script while delivering her graduation speech, criticising the state's extreme abortion ban in an address that has since been widely shared on social media.
School administrators had signed off on Paxton Smith’s pre-written speech on how TV and media have shaped her worldview. But, when it came time to address the graduating class of Lake Highlands high school, she pivoted.
“In 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,” she said, her voice shaking as she began.
“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.”
In May, the state's governor, Greg Abbott, signed into law a near-total ban on abortions, prohibiting the procedure at six weeks, when most people do not even know that they are pregnant.
The extreme ban also allows private citizens to sue any abortion provider or anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion that violates the restriction – opening the floodgates to harassment and frivolous lawsuits.
The law makes no exception for rape or incest, and advocates say it will, in effect, make abortion care impossible for women to access in the state.
“I have dreams, hopes and ambitions,” Ms Smith said. “Every girl here does. We have spent our whole lives working towards our futures, and without our consent or input, our control over our futures has been stripped away from us.”
“I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail me, that if I’m raped, then my hopes and efforts and dreams for myself will no longer be relevant,” she added. “I hope you can feel how gut-wrenching it is, how dehumanising it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken from you.”
The speech has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on TikTok and drew the attention of prominent political figures. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 presidential candidate and longtime activist for women's rights, tweeted: "This took guts. Thank you for not staying silent, Paxton."
The former Democratic Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke thanked Ms Smith “for having the courage of your convictions and inspiring Texas with your refusal to accept injustice as the price of participation in civic life”.
Ms Smith told D Magazine that the viral fame had felt “weird for me personally”, though she was pleased that the issues she raised were getting attention. She also urged people to vote, “and to stay involved in local elections because those have more power than I think the media gives them credit for”. – Guardian