Paxton Smith. Photo by Patrick Dunn : Photography.

Lake Highlands High School Valedictorian Paxton Smith says she planned to deliver a speech about the effect of the media on young minds, but eleven days before Sunday’s graduation Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed Texas Senate Bill 8, virtually prohibiting abortion across the state. The theft of her rights, and the rights of her classmates, made discussing anything but the “heartbeat bill” simply “wrong,” she says.

“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,” says Smith. “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.”

The full text of her address is below.

Texas currently bans abortion after 20 weeks, but the new law makes the procedure illegal after the first heartbeat can be detected, usually at about six weeks. Most women aren’t aware they are pregnant until after that mark. The bill, which takes effect in September, makes no exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest and allows individual citizens to sue healthcare workers and anyone else who may have helped a pregnant woman obtain the procedure.

Smith says she’s been overwhelmed by the positive reaction she’s received, from applause at Wildcat Stadium to social media messages from people who watched her speech on YouTube.

“When I gave the speech, I didn’t realize people who weren’t affiliated with LHHS would see it,” she says. “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.”

Before Smith and other student speakers addressed the crowd, they were warned the microphone would be cut off if they deviated from the messages they’d submitted to Principal Kerri Jones for approval.

“I was concerned the speech wouldn’t go over as I hoped” (if someone turned off the mic), she says. “I thought it was worth taking the risk.”

Richardson ISD says Smith’s expression of opinions on reproductive rights was will result in the district reviewing its procedures before next year’s graduation.

“All students had to submit their speeches in advance for approval and the principal met with them to make any necessary edits and changes,” according to a statement issued by the district. “The speech was then added to the script for the ceremony. Everything that was supposed to be said during graduation was included in a notebook on the podium. The speech that was delivered was not the one that was submitted, and it was not in the podium book. This student chose to instead use an alternate speech that had not been submitted or approved in advance.

“It is important to note that the following is written on the back of our graduation program, ‘The students who shall be speaking at the graduation ceremony were selected based on neutral criteria to deliver the 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.’”

Russell Smith says he couldn’t be prouder of his daughter and her actions.

“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. So few people demonstrate this level of maturity and poise, regardless of age.”

Smith’s valedictory address:

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 this state.

Recently the heartbeat bill was passed in Texas. Starting in September, there will be a ban on abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy, regardless of whether the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. 6 weeks. That’s all women get. Most women don’t even realize they’re pregnant by then. And so, before they have the time 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 has been 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 or 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’m 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 it 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. 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, a war on the rights of your sisters, a war on the rights of your daughters.

We cannot stay silent.