01/21/2013 10:29 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2013

Inaugurating Roe: Remove Restrictions on Abortion Coverage

In·au·gu·rate (in ô΄ gyә rāt) vt. To "put something into operation."

I've thought a lot about this word as President Obama's second inauguration nears. The day after the inaugural ceremonies is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision protecting a woman's constitutional right to an abortion. While these are milestones to be celebrated, for too many women the promise of Roe has yet to be "put into operation."

For four decades, many American women have lived their lives secure in the knowledge that they will be able to make their own decisions about becoming parents, including the decision to have an abortion. But for a woman to be able to make a real decision based on what's best for her circumstances, she needs to be able to afford the necessary care. Unfortunately, current policies withhold coverage of abortion from women who get their health insurance through federal programs like Medicaid. Stopping eligible women from using health assistance funds for abortion is political interference in their lives.

As former Congressman Henry Hyde, author of the provision withholding abortion coverage from Medicaid-eligible women, put it: "I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the... Medicaid bill."

Abortion opponents have found more and more vehicles over time. The Hyde Amendment and its progeny affect women and families from many walks of life. Coverage has been withheld from women who are employed by the federal government, who serve in the Peace Corps, who receive care through Indian Health Services, who are detained in federal prisons and from low-income women who live in the District of Columbia. These women, each with very different lives, have two things in common: their health insurance is uniquely vulnerable to interference from Congress and, because of these restrictions, their ability to make real decisions about their pregnancies has been severely limited.

We all know someone who works hard to make ends meet but, given the cost of living, really can't pull together money for an extra medical expense on her own. As a country, we should not hold back benefits from someone who is eligible and in need. The idea that a woman who needs an abortion has to shut off her heat or telephone just to pay for it should be unacceptable.

But here's the thing -- every year there's a chance to take a stand against these policies. This year, when the president submits his budget proposal to Congress, he can omit the restrictions on coverage of abortion. This small but bold act would send a strong signal to Congress and to women and families around the country: Not only are these restrictions unfair, they're also not inevitable. Together, we must work to eliminate them.

Would removing these restrictions from the president's proposed budget lead to their immediate elimination? Of course not. But it would go a long way toward continuing to send the message that these policies are not built in stone, and that change is possible. The president's strong leadership was key to removing the ban on abortion coverage for servicewomen and military dependents in cases of rape and incest earlier this month -- and there is much more to be done.

As our president and Congress begin new terms, it is time to inaugurate the promise of Roe v. Wade for all women. Deleting these restrictions from his budget is yet another way that the president can lead on this important issue.