Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order protecting access to abortion in North Carolina at a press conference on Wednesday.
The order states that patients and providers will not face criminal or civil penalties for providing, seeking, assisting or obtaining reproductive health care services in North Carolina.
“Your zip code should not determine your rights, but because of the Supreme Court's outrageous decision, that's the reality right now,” Cooper said at the press conference. “For now, it's up to the states to determine whether women get reproductive healthcare, and in North Carolina, they still can. As Governor, I'm determined to keep it that way.”
Reproductive health care services are defined as all medical, surgical, counseling or referral services relating to the human reproductive system in the executive order. This is included, but not limited to, services relating to contraception and the termination of a pregnancy.
Rebecca Kreitzer is an associate professor of public policy at UNC whose research focuses on the creation of abortion policy in the United States.
She explained that executive orders are intended to clarify existing policies and are not supposed to make substantial changes to state law.
“It basically, as an overall, is saying that the state employees of North Carolina are not going to assist other states and assist in the criminalization of abortion, which is currently legal here in North Carolina,” she said.
The executive order addresses the fact that other states have already enacted or plan to enact restrictions on abortion access, including in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnant person’s health is in danger. It states that North Carolina will be “an increasingly critical access point for reproductive health care services for people across the Southeast and country."
Alice Cartwright, a second-year doctoral student studying abortion and contraception access in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at UNC, said that according to the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, one-third of the patients seen in North Carolina in one week were from other states.
“We have this executive order in North Carolina for people who might need access to abortion care, but you may actually have to wait a lot longer than you might have before because there's so many people traveling to North Carolina,” Cartwright said. “So you might not be able to even get care as soon as you would like.”
The order also acknowledged that reproductive healthcare restrictions disproportionately impact people of color, people with disabilities, people who are low-income and people who live in rural areas.
Kreitzer said people in these groups experience disadvantages that affect their ability to obtain an abortion such as taking time off from work, money and the ability to travel. She said that for these reasons, many people in these groups will be unable to cross state lines to North Carolina and other abortion sanctuary states.
Cartwright said that people of color are more likely to be targeted or penalized regarding reproductive health in general.
“People of color in the U.S. are often more likely to be pursued by law enforcement, so there is a concern that people of color seeking care might be more vulnerable to prosecution,” she said.
According to Kreitzer, there has been an increase in the “number of women who are facing criminal penalties for miscarriage” and these women are disproportionately women of color.
She said this is concerning because miscarriage is common, affecting an estimated 10 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies and 26 percent of all pregnancies, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“What we’ll see where people have pregnancy loss and miscarriage is the prosecution of those people will be focused on the more marginalized society,” she said. “This executive order, part of what it does is it importantly says that North Carolina won’t help prosecute those people. This is meaningful because some of the other states are talking about enacting criminal penalties for providers and people who end up obtaining an abortion.”
According to North Carolina state law, abortion is protected up until 20 weeks of pregnancy.
However, Kreitzer said that Cooper is limited in what he can do to protect abortion.
She said Cooper is limited by the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly — which had a veto-proof supermajority in recent history — and that the state Supreme Court balance could change in the upcoming election.
“Abortion access legality is very precarious in North Carolina, and it's contingent on other things like the legislature and the state Supreme Court,” she said. “So this executive order that Governor Cooper signed does, I think, probably about as much as he could do as governor.”
Cartwright believes it is too early to know if the executive order does enough to protect abortion access in North Carolina.
“I don't think we quite know yet what the implications are going to be from a state level,” she said. “But I definitely think it's a good first step.”
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