I’m the valedictorian whose graduation speech about abortion went viral. This is what I need you to know

I wanted the listeners to feel how I felt, viscerally. I needed them to hurt the way I did, because then maybe someone would care

Paxton Smith
Wednesday 09 June 2021 19:12 BST

Daniel Berrigan once said, “Know where you stand, and stand there.” Well here I am, not quite standing, but sitting in my childhood bed typing, the same way I did when writing a speech that would soon go viral round the globe.

On May 30th, I stood up to give my speech as valedictorian on high school graduation day. I’d been thinking about how I felt about the heartbeat bill, one of the most restrictive bans on abortion in the United States, which had been signed into law just days earlier in my home state of Texas. Regardless of rape or incest, this bill would almost entirely ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The whole situation felt dystopian and urgent. How was it possible that a government — an American government, no less — could cast aside such a fundamental right as bodily autonomy?

I was indignant, furious, scared. I had to do something. I wrote down the bits of thought that got stuck on repeat in my brain. I untangled feelings of fear and anger with each keystroke. This was the making of my valedictory address. I wanted the listeners to feel how I felt, viscerally. I needed them to hurt the way I did, because then maybe someone would care. Maybe.

The day rolled around and I stood up to speak with my mind clear. I pulled my typed-up speech out my bra and began to talk. I talked about how the women of America deserved more. I spoke about my fear, as a young woman, that if I was assaulted one day or if my contraception failed, I would be backed into a corner by my government. The view of the audience was fuzzy and at first I couldn’t tell how people would react.

Then, when I was about halfway through, one cheer erupted from the left; a second came from the right. Shouts of encouragement began to fill the stadium, and, unbeknownst to me, the speech was being shared on social media through people’s smartphones before I’d even had chance to deliver the finishing line. All of a sudden, the world was talking about my high school, my speech and my choice.

Within less than twenty-four hours, the speech had gone viral, trending in the top ten globally on Twitter. National news stations began to call my phone, and a local magazine asked for an interview. The next day, international interviews flooded in and messages began to arrive online from Italy, Germany, France, Mexico, Tunisia, and so many other countries. They almost all expressed gratitude, saying thanks for saying what they hadn’t been able to, thanks for giving them a voice when it felt like no one was listening.

Women from all over the world felt the same feelings I did, and it hit me like a bird hits a windowpane: reproductive rights are a global issue. The words of thanks from these women will never leave me.

Not everyone has been pleased with my speech, of course. I’ve been told a few times by critics that if I had such a big problem with this Texas law, then I should just move. To them I say, if the laws of a state become so overbearing and abrasive that the only remedy you can think of is leaving the state, then I fear you don’t understand the purpose of our government. Our government exists to keep us safe and protect our freedom while maintaining order. When the government oversteps its rule, it is the job of the people to push back on its hand of authority. That is a fundamental Texan and American belief.

I stayed silent for too long. I was scared to speak up about such a controversial issue, especially when it felt like the consequences would outweigh any possible benefit. Abortion is heavily stigmatized and, as Lindy West once wrote, stigma breeds silence. I challenge you now to break that silence. My future and the future of all other young women in this state, in this world, sits on your shoulders. What will you do now?

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