President Barack Obama will Friday announce a compromise to defuse a row over access to birth control which has outraged Catholic leaders and sparked claims he has infringed religious freedom.
A senior Obama aide said that the president would no longer require religious organization to offer free contraception on employee health plans, but will put the onus on insurance firms to offer the services to all women.
"These institutions that have a religious objection do not have to offer this to their employees and they do not have to pay for it," said the official on condition of anonymity.
But the officials, keen to avoid angering the important election demographic of women voters, said that Obama had not compromised on the core issue in the dispute — providing contraceptive care to all women free of charge.
The fight erupted when the administration decided not to exempt religious employers from a requirement under its health reform law that work-based insurance plans offer women coverage for contraception.
Officials argued that women who worked, for example as a nurse at a Catholic hospital, may not share their employers religious opposition to contraception and should have the same rights as women workers elsewhere.
Catholic leaders were outraged — though houses of worship were exempt — and Republicans used the row to whip up a social issues storm, firing up their conservative political base in election year.
Officials said the administration would now require health insurance firms to offer health care plans not including contraception to religious organizations.
But the insurance companies would have to reach out to women directly to see if they require contraceptive services and will not be able to charge an extra premium for the coverage.
The Catholic Health Association, which had criticized the original mandate, said it was "very pleased" with the compromise, which it said protected religious liberty and the rights of Catholic institutions.
"The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed," said Sister Carol Keehan.
The Planned Parenthood Federation, a non-profit organization which fights for women on reproductive issues, also welcomed the decision.
"In the face of a misleading and outrageous assault on women's health, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage," said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards.
There was no immediate reaction from conservative Catholic organizations.
A brace of new polls show a majority of Catholics — and the U.S. public at large — support the president's position, which has drawn heavy fire from some of the church's largest groups because contraception is against its teachings.
But the White House may have been concerned that the row could harm Obama's standing among blue-collar white Catholic voters who play an important role in presidential election swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.