UT student uses TikTok to fuel reproductive justice

Sarah Brager, Life and Arts Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the August 9, 2022 flip book. 

Only a week and a half before her high school graduation, music sophomore Paxton Smith decided she would denounce Texas’ heartbeat bill and advocate for abortion rights in her valedictorian speech — a choice she said came with great risk. Now, over a year later, Smith is widely recognized as an activist and role model, a platform she said she never expected to come from her graduation day.

“All of the risks were worth it to help people hear and understand reality,” Smith said. “When I started my activism, I didn’t know anything about abortion. All I knew (was) I didn’t want to be forced into having children before I was ready. That’s all you need to know to care.”

With greater abortion restrictions in place today due to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Smith now uses content creation on social media, most notably TikTok, to separate myth from fact regarding abortion care and sex education. Making around three to five TikToks per day, Smith said she tries to highlight issues she believes aren’t receiving proper attention in the news, such as local responses to reproductive health legislation from clinics and community members.

“I found myself with this massive platform where people wanted to listen to me, where people wanted to hear my thoughts,” Smith said. “As an activist, it’s hard to see the exact impact of what you’re doing unless you’re working with people on the ground, but I think the value in (activism) revolves around the people that you’re helping and educating.”

With over 24,000 followers on TikTok, Smith said she views the platform as an important tool in making abortion information widely accessible and connecting with young voters.

In addition to spreading awareness through content creation, Smith sits on the board of the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, which helps fund abortion services and emergency contraceptives in states where abortion is legal. She is also on the advisory board for A is For, a nonprofit aiming to destigmatize abortion through art. Smith also worked with Coalition Austin, a social justice group run by UT students, to organize the Educational Arts for Reproductive Rights festival in the spring, where she spoke about the importance of reproductive rights.

“Showing emotions is often frowned upon for women striving to create an audience who listens to what they have to say,” said Avery White, former vice chair for Coalition Austin and social work sophomore. “Abortion access and care is an emotional topic, so it’s incredible to see how (Paxton) balances that line and (combines) her personal experience and emotionality with her strong confidence.”

Smith said she didn’t expect her activism to grow into what it is today — now having spoken on discussion panels abroad and made regular appearances on the national news. However, her brother Mason said he knew she started something big as soon as he heard her valedictorian speech.

“She didn’t tell anyone (about the speech) except her dad, so nobody knew it was coming,” Mason said. “I heard it and I was like, ‘That’s going to be news tomorrow.’ It was the type of performance that gives you chills up the spine.”

With persistent support from her family, fellow activists and online followers, Smith continues to use her platform to educate people in entertaining and easily digestible ways.
“The nature of the situation is that people’s rights are being taken away, and their autonomy over their bodies and minds are being taken away,” Smith said. “(By getting involved) you are doing something to ensure that they get to keep that (autonomy), and the value of that can’t be measured.”