On Sunday, Lake Highlands High School valedictorian Paxton Smith delivered a surprise commencement speech to enthusiastic applause. Now, some of the nation’s leading politicians and activists are giving her a standing ovation.
Prior to the outdoor ceremony, Smith was approved to deliver a speech she’d written about the media and how it’s shaped her view of the world, as first reported by D Magazine . Instead, she used her fleeting platform to touch on another, more divisive topic: abortion.
On May 19, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law the so-called “heartbeat bill,” which bans abortions as early as six weeks, even in instances of rape or incest. The law will go into effect on Sept. 1.
Smith faced a sea of people seated in her high school's stadium. Her voice trembled at first, but she quickly gained more confidence as she chided the heartbeat bill as discriminatory toward women. Without their input or consent, Smith said, the law would strip women of their ability to control their own future.
“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,” Smith said. “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.”
After warning of the “war on the rights” of Texas mothers, sisters and daughters, Smith smiled, thanked her audience and exited stage left.
It’s unclear what consequences, if any, will arise from Smith’s speech. She told D Magazine that administrators said "the school could withhold her diploma," although nothing had come of it as of Tuesday.
Richardson ISD, home to Lake Highlands High School, did not return the Observer’s request for comment by publication time.
While Smith’s speech likely ruffled a few feathers, it also attracted heaps of praise from household names.
On Wednesday, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton thanked the Texas valedictorian for not staying silent about abortion rights. “This took guts,” Clinton said in a tweet.
This took guts. Thank you for not staying silent, Paxton. https://t.co/DlwEgmMRGN— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) June 2, 2021
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke took to Twitter to weigh in on Smith’s bold move, too.
“Paxton, thank you for having the courage of your convictions and inspiring Texas with your refusal to accept injustice as the price of participation in civic life,” he said. “May we all use our place in this democracy to fight for what we believe to be right and follow your example!”
Paxton, thank you for having the courage of your convictions and inspiring Texas with your refusal to accept injustice as the price of participation in civic life.— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) June 2, 2021
May we all use our place in this democracy to fight for what we believe to be right and follow your example! https://t.co/PS3ZR80Gl7
Smith’s speech also meant a ton to women’s rights activists closer to home, including North Texas’ Soraya Santos.
Having worked as a reproductive rights advocate for three decades, Santos said the month of May was tough. First, residents voted to make Lubbock a “sanctuary city for the unborn.” Later, Senate Bill 8 would pass, virtually banning abortion statewide.
While SB 8 will soon take effect, Santos knows the fight isn’t over. Watching Smith’s speech moved her to tears, and Santos said she was amazed by her courage.
It’s incredible for a valedictorian to go against the rules in such a public way, Santos said. And no matter what happens with abortion over the next couple of months, it gives Santos hope to know that there are “young people like [Smith] out there” who pay attention to state politics.
Santos hopes that Smith’s story will inspire other young people in the U.S. to “rise up and use their voice.”
“Because that is something that they can never take away from us,” Santos said. “They can take away our rights and they can oppress our bodies, but they cannot take away our voice.”
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