We caught up with the 19-year-old about how her life has changed since that viral moment and how she’s fighting for abortion access in this country.
A year ago, Paxton Smith had her valedictorian speech ready to go for her high school graduation ceremony — she was going to talk about media and the effect it has had on her perception of reality. But a week and a half before graduation, Texas Governor Greg Abbott passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, and Paxton realized she had to use this speech to speak out.
Smith ended up scrapping her planned remarks and went viral for the valedictorian speech she ended up giving at her high school graduation in Dallas, Texas. One year after that viral moment, Smith is now completing her freshman year at the University of Texas and still fighting for reproductive rights. KCM caught up with Paxton to discuss how her life has changed since that moment and the future of abortion access in this country.
KCM: Paxton, can you walk us through what the day of your high school graduation was like? What led up to that moment?
Paxton Smith: I was valedictorian of my high school, which meant I would give a speech. Originally I had intended to give a speech on media and the effect that content and media have had on my perception of reality. I sent that in for approval, and it got approved. And about a week and a half before the speech, Governor Greg Abbott passed SB8, which is a six-week abortion ban in Texas, and it was really hard for me to actually process what had happened entirely. I went home and I thought about it, and I started to come to terms with the reality of what that meant for me. And the reality was that if I got pregnant, then my right to control if I have children or not was no longer my right. So at my high school graduation, when I had a chance to share a message with thousands of people, I decided to talk about that.
What was the reaction to your speech?
A lot of people think that I was nervous — and I actually wasn’t nervous at all! What I was feeling was a huge sense of dread about what was going to come. I knew that abortion is very controversial, especially in Texas, and in my area, there is a very large conservative presence, and I knew that by giving the speech, I would be potentially burning some bridges — some people would never want to talk to me again. I was afraid about potentially losing scholarships and I was afraid of the repercussions that would come. But to me, all of those risks that I was taking on would be worth it to say what I had to say.
The reaction to the speech was actually entirely different than I had expected. It was overwhelmingly positive just right off the bat. People were just so supportive and so kind. And so thankful that I had used my platform to talk about this issue.
For those who might not be familiar, can you explain what the SB8 bill is in Texas?
SB8 is the Texas abortion ban, which starts at six weeks of pregnancy. Under this ban, abortion will be illegal even in cases of rape or incest. Many if not most women or people who can get pregnant don’t realize that they’re pregnant starting at six weeks. So for them, abortion is just completely off the table.
Additionally, because of other pieces of legislation and the distance that a lot of people have to travel to get to abortion clinics, even if somebody realized at five weeks or at four weeks that they might be pregnant, they probably still wouldn’t have time or the resources to be able to access abortion care within the allotted timeframe that Texas has set.
What was your reaction to the leaked Supreme Court opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade?
When the draft was leaked, I was sitting in my dorm room, at my desk, and somebody had sent an article about the leak in this group chat that I’m in. I read it and wasn’t surprised at all.
How have you been continuing your activism? What can people do to get involved?
Since the draft leak, if you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ve seen that tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest. I’ve been part of those protests and I’m continuing to be part of those protests. That’s really my biggest avenue of activism right now. And continuing to come at that with persistence — not just protesting for one day, but coming at it continuously. If we want to ensure that this human right is protected for as long as possible or potentially that we get the human right back as soon as possible, that’s something that we all need to be doing. We all need to be persistent in our activism and persistent in our protests.
You’re a freshman at the University of Texas. What have the protests been like in Austin?
The energy has been very, very high in Austin. These are some of the largest protests that I’ve ever seen for abortion rights and it’s just really inspiring. And what’s also inspiring is how many men are showing up to these protests. There are a lot of them and that’s just so nice to see — they’re finally showing up. They’re finally supporting us. They’re finally fighting with us for this.
What message do you have for people reading this who want to get involved, or might be on the fence about getting involved?
Paxton Smith: The Supreme Court wrote that draft because they intended for it to be the final decision — this is not something that they threw together. Look at their language — they are very strongly opinionated and very strongly compelled to overturn Roe v. Wade. And whether we choose to believe it or not, or whether we want to believe it or not, abortion rights are probably going to go down the drain pretty soon. And I would just say, if that’s not something that you wanna see, then it’s on you to show up, it’s on you to be an activist for yourself. We can’t count on the government anymore. It went through the state politicians, it went through our local governments, it went through the federal body — they couldn’t protect the right. It went through our Supreme Court and even they’re not protecting the rights. So it’s on all of us to show up, represent ourselves and fight for our rights. That’s the only way that they’re going to listen.