NASHVILLE -- Chanting ''Not the church, not the state; women must choose their fate," hundreds of members of the National Organization for Women rallied for abortion rights yesterday as President Bush prepared to select a new US Supreme Court justice.
NOW shifted the agenda for its three-day annual convention following the announcement Friday that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was retiring.
The first woman on the Supreme Court, O'Connor refused in 1989 to join four other justices who were ready to reverse the landmark 1973 decision that said women have a constitutional right to abortion.
In 1992, she helped forge a five-justice majority that reaffirmed the core holding of the 1973 ruling. Then, in 2000, she provided the fifth and decisive vote that struck down a Nebraska law that was aimed at banning a procedure critics call ''partial-birth" abortions.
Her retirement gives the court its first vacancy since 1994 and leaves Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the only woman on the court.
Women's rights activist Eleanor Smeal told the crowd that if Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, has any future presidential ambition, he can't be known as the lawmaker instrumental in rolling back abortion rights. Frist, a Tennessee Republican, will be expected to guide Bush's choice to succeed O'Connor through Senate confirmation.
''What we have to do now is raise such a loud voice that Senator Bill Frist hears it," said Smeal, former president of NOW and current president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. ''He has to understand we need a moderate, centrist Supreme Court."
A Frist spokesman did not immediately return phone messages left at his home and office yesterday. Frist has said he will give up his Senate seat when his term ends next year, but he hasn't answered or discouraged speculation that he will run for president in 2008.
''What we want is a moderate in the same vein as Sandra Day O'Connor," said demonstrator Kathy Miller, 58, of Philadelphia. ''It's not like we're asking to go in the extreme other direction."
Members of NOW planned to elect their president last night.
NOW president Kim Gandy, elected in 2001, is being challenged by Connecticut lawyer Rosemary J. Dempsey, who has held several national and state leadership roles since joining NOW in 1970.