As It Happens

Texas valedictorian ditches approved speech to speak out against new abortion law

Paxton Smith, 18, ditched her pre-approved speech about TV and media and instead used her platform to take an impassioned stance against her state's new abortion restrictions.

In now-viral speech, 18-year-old Paxton Smith said: 'There is a war on my body and a war on my rights'

Paxton Smith, this year's valedictorian at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, poses for a photo in her red cap and grown. (Juan Figueroa/Dallas Morning News/The Associated Press)

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Valedictorian Paxton Smith never thought people around the world would hear her speech. 

In fact, when the Texas high school graduate decided to ditch her pre-approved speech about TV and media — and instead used her platform to take an impassioned stance against her state's new abortion restrictions — she wasn't sure anyone would hear her at all. 

"A large part of me thought that the microphone was going to get cut off and that was going to be the end of the speech forever," Smith, 18, told As It Happens host Carol Off 

But not only did Smith finish her speech, she drew raucous applause from the crowd of parents, students and teachers at the football field at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas. 

Since then, videos of the speech have exploded on social media, making headlines around the world and drawing praise from high-profile people like comedian Sarah Silverman and former U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

"It was a little nerve-racking. I didn't know how it was going to be taken, and I fully expected it to not go anything like the way that it did go. I expected people to be very upset with me," Paxton said.

"It's gone very well and the message has spread so far. So I'm very glad that I did it."

In the weeks leading up to her graduation ceremony, Paxton says all she could think about was the so-called "heartbeat bill."

The bill, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into effect on May 19, is one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the U.S. It outlaws any abortions as early six weeks after conception, when many women are still unaware that they are pregnant, and has no exceptions for rape or incest.

"Our creator endowed us with the right to life, and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion," Abbott said before signing the bill. "In Texas, we work to save those lives."

Paxton says she decided to write a speech about the bill about 10 days before graduation. 

"I was trying to finish a school assignment for a psychology class, and I couldn't bring myself to focus on the assignment because I was so caught up in thinking about the heartbeat bill and how much it upset me," she said. 

"And it hit me in that moment that that's what I should talk about."

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.- Paxton Smith 

When she took to the podium in her red cap and gown on Sunday, she started off a little shakily, stumbling over a few words. 

But she appeared to grow in confidence as the crowd cheered her on.

"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," she said.

"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.

"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."

'Does not reflect' school board's views

While the speech has drawn widespread acclaim, Lake Highlands High School was not a fan of Paxton's tactics.

She says two staff members took her aside after her speech and scolded her for going off script; one telling her the school could withhold her diploma — although it never did. 

The Richardson Independent School District, of which Lake Highlands is part, said in a statement it would review student speech protocols before next year's graduation ceremonies.

"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," it said.

But Paxton says she hasn't faced any reprimand for speaking out. Instead, people all over the world have lauded her for taking a stand. Silverman called her "brave." Clinton said what she did "took guts."

"People call it brave. People call it courageous. Like, I guess that's understandable, but I didn't view it as a brave act," Paxton said. "I just felt like I was doing what was right."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Paxton Smith produced by Katie Geleff. 

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