Obama defuses birth control row

US president Barack Obama, under fierce election-year fire, has abruptly abandoned his stand that religious organisations must pay for birth control for workers, scrambling to end a furore raging from the Catholic Church to Congress to his re-election foes.

He demanded that insurance companies step in to provide the coverage instead.

Mr Obama's compromise means ultimately that women would still get birth control without having to pay for it, no matter where they work.

The President insisted he had stuck by that driving principle even in switching his approach, and the White House vehemently rejected any characterisation that Mr Obama had retreated under pressure.

Yet there was no doubt that Mr Obama had found himself in an untenable position. He needed to walk back fast and find another route to his goal.

The controversy over contraception and religious liberty was overshadowing his agenda, threatening to alienate key voters and giving ammunition to the Republicans running for his job. It was a mess that knocked the White House off its message and vision for a second term.

Leaders from opposite sides of the divisive debate said they supported the outcome - or at least suggested they probably could live with it.

Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, the head of the US Catholic bishops and a fierce critic of the original rule covering hospitals and other employers, said the bishops were reserving judgment but that Mr Obama's move was a good first step. The bishops' organisation later issued a far more sceptical critique contending that the new approach offered insufficient protections for religious employers and calling that unacceptable.

Republicans hoping to oust Mr Obama from the White House were conceding nothing. Though not mentioning the birth control issue, Newt Gingrich assailed the president's views of religious rights and said: "I frankly don't care what deal he tries to cut. ... If he wins re-election, he will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after he's re-elected."

Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, said the decision didn't change anything. "Today he did the classic Obama retreat, all right, and what I mean by that is it wasn't a retreat at all. It's another deception," Mr Romney said while campaigning in Maine.