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Dr. Laura Gerald (Vimeo)

(The Root) -- The abrupt resignation of a high-ranking African-American official in North Carolina has led to speculation that she is a casualty of the state's increasingly contentious war over reproductive rights. Dr. Laura Gerald was state health director for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, making her the state's most senior authority on health policy. But late Wednesday night, Gerald's resignation was announced in a press release.

The timing of Gerald's exit is noteworthy. The day before she submitted her letter of resignation, the state's governor signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. The law signed by Gov. Pat McCrory requires state officials to regulate any clinics performing abortions with the same certification requirements of outpatient surgical facilities, like hospitals. Within 48 hours of the law taking effect, the state's last remaining abortion clinic lost its licensing. It is now facing closure.

Gerald reportedly blamed her exit on having "significant differences and disagreements with many of the policy and administrative directions" that have begun unfolding in the state and specifically under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services. She concluded, "These differences are making it increasingly impossible to continue to be effective in my current role."

Gerald's appointment was significant. As an African-American woman leading health policy for a state with one of the largest African-American populations in the country (22 percent of North Carolina residents are black), Gerald had the opportunity to help address some of the health challenges that disproportionately affect populations of color. North Carolina ranks in the top 10 of U.S. states with the highest HIV rates.

Although Gerald is one of the first high-profile casualties of North Carolina's escalating ideological battles, she is unlikely to be the last. In 2008, after President Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter, the state emerged as a battleground in the nation's culture wars. In addition to the abortion debate, voters approved a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2012, the same year the state hosted the Democratic National Convention. That year, President Obama did not carry the state.

Gerald has not commented publicly on her departure.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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