Barack Obama, the US president, in an abrupt policy shift aimed at quelling an election-year firestorm, announced that religious employers would not be required to offer free birth control to workers and the onus would instead fall on insurers.
But Catholic Church leaders and Obama's Republican foes - who had railed against the rule requiring coverage for contraceptives as a violation of religious freedom - signalled that some divisions remain and the controversial issue could reignite in the 2012 presidential race.
The compromise by Obama sought to accommodate religious organisations, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, outraged by a new rule that would have required them to offer free contraceptive coverage to women employees.
Instead, the revised approach puts the burden on insurance companies, ordering them to provide workers at religious- affiliated institutions with free family planning if they request it, without involving their employer at all.
Insurers voiced concern, raising questions about whether they were consulted about the change.
"Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women," Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room as he sought to put the political furour to rest on Friday.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops called it a "first step in the right direction" but the group said it was still concerned about the issue and would reserve final judgment.
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Weighing in publicly on the matter for the first time, Obama acknowledged that religious groups had genuine reasons for their objections, but he accused some of his opponents of a cynical effort to turn the issue into a "political football".
The rule, announced on January 20, had sparked an outcry not only from Catholic leaders but social conservatives, including Republican presidential hopefuls. It even drew opposition from several Democratic legislators from heavily Catholic states and sowed dissent among some of Obama's senior advisers.
Health insurance giant, Aetna, said it would comply with the policy but needed "to study the mechanics of this unprecedented decision before we can understand how it will be implemented and how it will impact our customers".
Republicans have seized on the issue, seeing a chance to paint Obama as anti-religion and put him on the defensive as signs of economic improvement appear to have re-energised his re-election bid
"I don't care what deal he cuts," Newt Gingrich, the Republican presidential contender, said about the birth-control rule change in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"If he is re-elected he will wage war on the Catholic Church the day after [he is elected]. We don't trust him."
Obama's policy shift was aimed at preventing the controversy from becoming a liability for him with Catholic voters, while at the same time trying not to anger his liberal base.
But Republicans risk alienating some moderate independent voters by hammering on such a divisive social issue at a time when polls show most Americans support birth-control coverage and the fragile economy tops the public's agenda.
|Obama promised that religious employers will not be mandated to offer free contraceptive coverage [AFP]
Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the US, welcomed the move, saying she was "pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated".
The controversy has pushed a sensitive social issue into the media spotlight ahead of November 6 presidential and congressional elections. Republicans hope to use it to galvanise their conservative base, but it is unclear whether it will resonate with the broader electorate.
The issue had triggered intense internal debate in the administration. Prominent Catholics in the White House - including Vice President Joe Biden and Leon Panetta, the defence secretary, - were said to have helped drive the compromise.
The policy shift was welcomed by some women's groups. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation, issued a statement saying the new plan "does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits".
Polls indicate a majority of Americans and Catholics support requiring contraception coverage. A Public Religion Research Institute poll last week found 55 per cent of Americans want employers to provide healthcare plans that cover contraception and birth control, including nearly six in 10 Catholics.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies