More than ever, it's obvious that high school students are more attuned to what's happening in the world than some of (many of, actually) our elected leaders. Case in point: Paxton Smith, a graduating senior from Dallas, Texas, who decided to ditch her pre-approved commencement speech in favour of a message about abortion rights.
On Sunday, during the Lake Highlands High School class of 2021 graduation ceremony, Smith told the audience that she had planned a speech about the impact of TV and media on young minds. But after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a restrictive reproductive rights bill banning any abortions later than six weeks into a pregnancy — that is, two weeks after a missed period — she took a different approach.
"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," Smith said.
As she told the audience, Texas' heartbeat bill will go into effect this September. After six weeks, she said, most people don't even know that they're pregnant. "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," she said. "I hope that you can feel how gut-wrenching that is. I hope you can feel how dehumanising it is to have the autonomy over your own body taken away from you."
Texas isn't the first state to try passing a so-called "heartbeat bill," but Senate Bill 8 poses a unique threat. Similar laws in other states dictate that the government must enforce the abortion ban, but under Texas' legislation, private citizens would be able to sue abortion providers and anyone who "aids and abets" them. This way, as The Texas Tribune reported, pro-choice advocates are unable to sue the state in response.
"Planned Parenthood can't go to court and sue Attorney General [Ken] Paxton like they usually would because he has no role in enforcing the statute," Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, told The Tribune. "They have to basically sit and wait to be sued.”
Elizabeth Nash, principal policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, told USA Today that the law is clearly intended to shut down clinics and prevent people from seeking abortions. "This ban would open the floodgates for frivolous lawsuits, bury clinics under court cases and legal fees, and make it difficult for providers to remain open," Nash said.
Per Nash's statement and the heartbeat bill, anyone would have the ability to sue someone involved in receiving or providing an abortion in the state — even those with no connections to a specific procedure, provider, or pregnant person. Not only is the Texas government making decisions about people's bodies, but it is also empowering everyday Texans to control each other's uteruses.
Abbott gleefully signed the bill on May 19. Since then, hundreds of physicians and attorneys have condemned the decision. Before taking the stage at her graduation, Smith criticised Abbott's bill on her TikTok. "Texas women: What if I want to have sex before I get married?" she wrote on May 24. "Greg Abbott: Well, I guess you'll just have to be prepared to die."
Over the phone, Smith told Refinery29 she's always been passionate about abortion access. "[The speech] came to me pretty naturally," she said. "The way that I wrote it, I would write down little nuggets that got stuck in my brain on repeat. And then I came back at the end and just refined it a bit."
Smith's speech went viral when a classmate shared it on TikTok. One commenter asked whether the crowd had a positive or negative reaction. "About half and half," wrote the user, who uses the handle @thehippiechick. "But the people who did cheer were VERY loud."
"It was pretty quiet at first, and then about midway through the speech, there were cheers coming from the left, and the right, and as I continued my speech, there was just constant cheering up until the end," Smith said. "On my way back up to the stage after walking the stage, a couple of ladies pulled me aside and told me the school was considering withholding my diploma. But that didn't end up happening."
She said she hasn't heard anything else from the school district since. Refinery29 reached out to the Richardson Independent School District for comment.
Smith told the local Advocate magazine that she first considered speaking up elsewhere, but decided to use her platform at graduation to speak her mind. "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," she said. "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."