NEW YORK - Leading women's rights groups in the United States are starting a nationwide campaign this week to block the Supreme Court nomination of a conservative judge who is known for his extremist views on women's reproductive rights.
Samuel Alito, 56, was nominated by President George W. Bush after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retired last year in July. His confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate is expected this month.
"Make no mistake about it. Alito is no Sandra Day O'Connor," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Feminist Majority Foundation, which has organized the campaign in collaboration with the National Organization for Women (NOW) and National Congress of Black Women (NCBW).
As the first-ever female to sit on the Supreme Court, O'Connor cast the decisive fifth vote on the nine-member panel to preserve affirmative action and the right to abortion.
Smeal and others fear that replacing O'Connor with Alito could tip the court's balance on many issues concerning women's human rights, including the right to abortion.
"It will take us back to the days when sexual harassment and discrimination was all in a day's work for women," says NOW's Lisa Bennet. "It will take us back when illegal, unsafe abortions were the norm."
In addition to sending letters to their representatives in the U.S. Senate, thousands of volunteers are preparing to join others in Washington to protest Alito's nomination, according to organizers.
"When women know what is at stake, they are appalled," says Bennet. "They are not willing to give up the advances of the past 40 years."
The three organizations are also enlisting students from around the country to take part in the rallies and meetings due to be held in Washington in the coming days.
"Young people are coming to Washington, D.C. from colleges and universities in 35 states, giving up their winter vacations because they don't want to lose rights necessary for modern life."
Judge Alito, who has written some 700 opinions, ruled in the 1991 case of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey that a Pennsylvania state law could require married women seeking an abortion to inform their husbands.
But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that verdict by a majority vote.
Last month, the Associated Press uncovered a 1995 memo written by Alito arguing that the 1973 Supreme Court decision on Roe vs. Wade should be overturned.
Roe vs. Wade was a landmark case establishing that laws against abortion violate the constitutional right to privacy. The decision outlawed all state laws banning or restricting abortion.
Unhappy with the ruling, many right-wing religious groups have since tried hard to see it reversed.
Many conservatives now seem more than pleased with Bush's decision to choose Alito for O'Connor's position.
"No one can argue that Judge Alito is anything but extremely well qualified for the court and his unanimous confirmation to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals will undermine any attempt by liberals to argue that he is an ideologue," says Progress for America, a conservative group supporting Alito's nomination.
As the controversy surrounding Alito's nomination begins to flare up the nationwide debate, some politicians on Capitol Hill are calling for calm.
"I would hope that people on both sides hold their fire," said senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) recently, "allow the Judiciary Committee to do its work, and not take a position until that work is completed."
Feinstein voted against John Roberts, another conservative judge, when he was nominated by Bush as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
As Feinstein and other lawmakers discuss Alito's nomination inside the U.S. Capitol, outside, activists like Bennet say they are determined not to turn back the clock.
"Bush has given in to the extremists' demands," she says, "but the Senate doesn't have to go along."
"That's the message from women, especially young women," she adds. "This is a fight for our future and we are ready."
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