President Obama will again embrace Planned Parenthood this week, headlining the group's annual gala even amid a growing national focus on abortion.
Planned Parenthood, a lightning rod in conservative circles, announced Tuesday that Obama would give the keynote speech at its annual Washington event, joining Dr. Ruth Westheimer and actress Lena Dunham as "champions of women's health."
On Wednesday, the White House said Obama would speak to the group on Friday morning instead -- so he could spend more time meeting with victims of the plant explosion in West, Texas.
"President Obama has done more than any president in history for women's health and rights," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. "He understands that access to birth control and preventive health care are economic issues for women and their families."
But the ceremony comes at an inconvenient time for the White House.
Set against the backdrop of the trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, accused of killing babies after they were delivered at his clinic, the president's courting of the abortion rights group is infuriating conservatives and abortion opponents.
For its part, Planned Parenthood has condemned Gosnell's alleged behavior. Still, pro-life groups on Tuesday were calling on Obama to cancel his speech.
"These accounts by former clinic staff have shell-shocked the nation, and it is incumbent upon the president to reconsider his support for the abortion industry and Planned Parenthood, which last year profited from ... committing over 300,000 abortions," said Lila Rose, head of Live Action, a group opposed to abortion.
The White House has tried to keep Obama out of the Gosnell discussion. When asked about the case recently, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president could not comment on an ongoing trial.
And when directly questioned about abortion on NBC's "Today" last week, the president simply said: "You know, I think, President Clinton said it pretty well when he said abortion should be safe, legal and rare."
The president leaned heavily on Planned Parenthood during his re-election campaign. He accused Republican Mitt Romney of wanting to cut off funding for the group, using the attack as part of his charge that Romney was orchestrating a so-called war on women.
And Richards appeared with Obama in battleground areas, such as Northern Virginia, hoping to sway moderate suburban women in particular.
Because of those close ties, Democrats privately said that Obama could not turn down the invitation from the nation's largest abortion rights group.
"They'd take it as a slap in the face," said one veteran Democratic operative, of Planned Parenthood. " 'Thanks for all that money; thanks for helping deliver the women's vote — now I don't need you anymore.' "
Republicans put it more bluntly.
"He's a second-term president playing to his base — it's payback time," said GOP consultant Mark Corallo. "He's never been one to shy away from being vociferously pro-abortion. The only thing I chuckle about is that he tries to paint Planned Parenthood as a health organization when it's an abortion factory."
Lena Dunham, the actress and creator of the television series "Girls," also will be honored at the event. She ignited conservative anger after she cut a video for Obama's re-election team suggesting that voting was like "your first time" having sex.
Obama will address Planned Parenthood on Thursday after attending the unveiling of George W. Bush's presidential library in Dallas and a memorial service for victims of the plant explosion in West, Texas.