"His nomination is an insult to the life and legacy of Thurgood Marshall and everything that he stood for," Patricia Ireland, NOW's national vice president, declared. "He is an extremist. He is out of step with the majority of Americans and he is out of step with the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution."
Ireland, Gloria Steinem and others celebrating NOW's 25th anniversary said that Thomas' views would imperil women's rights, civil rights and the right to privacy.
"We're going to Bork him," said Flo Kennedy, a feminist lawyer. "We need to kill him politically."
Robert H. Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan but was rejected by the Senate, 58 to 42. His critics attacked his narrow reading of constitutional protections.
The conservative Thomas was nominated by President Bush to replace Marshall, a liberal and civil rights trailblazer whose retirement is expected to solidify the high court's conservative bent.
"We will not sit quietly by while the Democratic Senate acquiesces to this court-packing strategy," Ireland told reporters. If the court overturns Roe vs. Wade, the ruling that legalized abortion, "both Democrats and Republicans will have to face women at the polls," she added.
Thomas' as-yet-untested views on abortion would appear to strike at the heart of the feminists' fears.
Although Thomas has never ruled in an abortion case, abortion rights activists have pointed with alarm to a 1987 speech in which he praised an essay by conservative scholar Lewis Lehrman. In the essay, Lehrman said Roe vs. Wade was unconstitutional and had resulted in a holocaust.
Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, described reproductive freedom as "a fundamental human right, like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. It's clear that any Supreme Court nominee must answer those questions and must be held to account."
New York City Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman, the city's highest-ranking female elected official, said Thomas' abortion views were fair game for questioning at his confirmation hearings.
"There's some kind of idea that you cannot ask and expect an answer from a Supreme Court nominee on the question of reproductive freedom and abortion rights. That is plain and simple nonsense," she said.
Ireland referred to recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion, such as the ruling that bars any discussion of abortion at clinics that receive federal funding.
"The court has made it clear that not only women's rights but all human rights are at risk at this time," she said. "All Americans have to ask themselves whose rights are on the chopping block next?"
Vice President Dan Quayle, in remarks published Friday, said Thomas had no obligation to answer questions during Senate confirmation hearings about whether he might vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
"I would imagine that Judge Thomas will not answer that specific question, nor is he obligated to answer that question," Quayle told the Washington Post in an interview.
He said that neither the President nor any senior Administration official had asked Thomas, a federal appeals court judge, about his views on abortion before his nomination to the court.
"That question is never asked," Quayle said. "It would be demeaning to the process, demeaning to the prospective Supreme Court justice to ask him how you're going to vote or rule on a case."