US student speech calling for reproductive rights goes viral

Paxton Smith veered off her approved graduation text to denounce a new Texas bill that bans abortions as early as six weeks.

In her speech, Paxton Smith slammed the 'war on the rights' of her body and those of other girls and women by the 'heartbeat bill', signed into law late last month [File: Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters]

American student Paxton Smith scrapped a graduation speech approved by her school administrators and delivered instead an abortion rights call in a message that has since gone viral on social media.

Smith, the 2021 valedictorian at Lake Highlands High School in the US state of Texas, submitted to school officials a speech on the effect of the media on young minds.

But when she spoke during the graduation ceremony on Sunday, she instead addressed what she called “a war on the rights” of her body and those of other girls and women by the “heartbeat bill”, signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott late last month.

“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,” she told her class.

The new law bans, without exemption, any abortion after a first heartbeat can be detected. That could come as early as six weeks after conception when many women may be unaware that they are pregnant.

The law would also allow anyone to sue a Texas abortion provider or anyone who helped someone get an abortion for as much as $10,000.

The law is set to take effect on September 1, but federal courts have mostly blocked states from enforcing similar measures. Abortion rights advocates are expected to challenge the law, arguing that the measure is, in effect, an outright ban on abortions.

Abortion rights activists rally outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

“I have dreams and hopes and ambition, every girl graduating today does,” Smith said. “We have spent our entire lives working towards our future, and without our input and without our consent, our control over that future has been stripped away from us.”

Although the bill makes an exception for medical emergencies, it does not exempt pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest.

“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,” she said, “I hope that you can feel how dehumanising it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken from you.”

Smith, who plans to study the music business at the University of Texas at Austin, said on Wednesday that she had already submitted her original speech to school officials and was trying to finish an end-of-year project in the school’s music room when she decided to scrap that speech.

“I couldn’t keep my mind on the project. My mind kept wandering to the ‘heartbeat bill’ and what it meant. So, I started making some notes,” she told The Associated Press news agency.

Smith said she expected to have her microphone cut off or to have her diploma withheld – neither happened. She also said she was stunned by the response to her message.

“I thought it would die right there,” she said. But she saw tears in her audience midway through the speech.

And in the days since, video of her address posted on social media and retweeted widely has drawn kudos from comedian Sarah Silverman, who tweeted, “Brave”, and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who tweeted: “This took guts. Thank you for not staying silent, Paxton.”

Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, tweeted: “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.”

The Richardson Independent School District, of which Lake Highlands is part, was less enthusiastic. In a statement, it said 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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies