By Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama invoked his young daughters on Tuesday to hit back at Rush Limbaugh over the conservative talk show host's incendiary comments about a birth control activist.
In remarks that outraged many women and drew criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, Limbaugh branded Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and "prostitute" for speaking out in support of Obama's policies on birth control.
Carefully measuring his words at a White House news conference, Obama would not take on Limbaugh directly or comment on his apology. But he said "all decent folks can agree that the remarks that were made don't have any place in the public discourse." He said he thought about his daughters, Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, when he called Fluke last week.
"I thought about Malia and Sasha, and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on," Obama said.
"I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way, and I don't want them attacked or called horrible names because they are being good citizens," he added.
Limbaugh's comments further inflamed an election-year debate between Obama and Republicans over the president's policy requiring that health insurance plans cover contraception.
Religious-affiliated organizations, the Roman Catholic Church, and social conservatives said the policy infringes on religious freedom. Obama has since allowed the institutions to pass on the birth control requirement to insurance companies.
Fluke got caught up in the heated battle after she spoke out about female students at Georgetown, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the country. She talked about how they suffered financial hardship because contraception was not covered by their healthcare insurance.
"I wanted Sandra to know that I thought her parents should be proud of her and that we want to send a message to all our young people that being part of a democracy involves argument and disagreements and debate," Obama said.
He said that such debate should not involve people "being demeaned and insulted."
Some political analysts say the Limbaugh comments could help Obama and his Democratic allies in the November 6 election, especially with women voters.
But Obama sidestepped a question of whether he thought Republicans were engaged in a "war on women."
While predicting strong support for Democrats from women voters, Obama said he did not think the birth control controversy or other social issues would be pivotal with women voters and said economic issues would be more important.
He said women would make up their on minds about what was important to them and would cast their votes based on "a whole range of issues."
Mentioning his wife, Obama said, "One of the things I've learned, being married to Michelle, is I don't need to tell her what it is that she thinks is important."
(Additional reporting by Samson Reiny; editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Beech)