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Feminist senator Nancy Ruth tells aid groups to drop abortion fight

Nancy Ruth is a Conservative senator and pro-choice feminist. She worries that aid activists, pressuring the Harper government to include access to abortion in a G8 initiative, will only touch off a backlash. She has some friendly advice for them.

"We have five weeks or whatever until the G8 starts. Shut the fuck up - on this issue," Ms. Ruth said.

Ms. Ruth issued her salty warning on Monday, at a Parliament Hill gathering to discuss the declining place of women's rights in Canada's foreign policy. When the aid groups criticized the Harper government's decision not to fund abortion as part of its initiative to reduce the deaths of mothers and young children, Ms. Ruth counselled self-censorship.

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Let it roll out. I hope I'm not proven wrong, but I have every confidence that it will include family planning and so on … and I hope I'm right. Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth, on the government's G8 maternal-health plan

Her comments - reported by the Toronto Star - were a suggestion of strategy, not a threat. She was arguing that if the activists let the abortion issue alone, there is a better chance the maternal-health plan will include programs for family planning and contraception.

"Let it roll out. I hope I'm not proven wrong, but I have every confidence that it will include family planning and so on … and I hope I'm right," she said. "It's just if you push it, there'll be more backlash. This is now a political football. This is not about women's health in this country."

The irony is that some of Monday's conference was given over to discussing a chill on non-governmental agencies involved in aid. Many aid organizations say there is an increasing fear that criticizing the Conservative government will lead to cuts in federal funding.

Many of the activists who absorbed Ms. Ruth's warning see her as an ally - but some said they view her statements as emblematic of the chill.

"I think it's a very revealing suggestion. That this government doesn't brook any criticism at all," said Katherine MacDonald, the executive director of Action Canada for Population and Development, and the person to whom Ms. Ruth addressed some of her remarks.

Joanna Kerr, the Canadian who is about to take over as chief executive of the international group Action Aid International, said the conference was about the reduced role of women's rights in Canadian foreign policy - but also the chill on speaking out at home. "We feel that our democratic space is getting smaller," she said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in January that Canada would champion a new push to combat maternal and infant deaths in poor countries when he hosts the summit of leaders of G8 countries in June.

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But his government has flip-flopped and stumbled over whether it will include funding for contraception and safe abortion, which many experts argue is critical to reducing pregnancy-related deaths.

In March, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the initiative would not include family planning programs at all; two days later, with the government under fire, he backtracked. But last week, the government announced Canadian maternal health programs would exclude abortion, though they might include contraception.

Ms. Ruth's comments appeared to reflect divisions within the Conservative caucus over whether the programs should include funding for contraception and family-planning programs. But Ms. McDonald argued that if groups like hers hadn't raised an uproar, when Mr. Cannon said in March that contraception would be excluded, that issue would already be decided.

Opposition from inside the Conservative caucus has already sparked efforts to remove funding for abortion from Canadian aid programs. A Conservative MP, Brad Trost, has since last year sponsored a campaign to press the government to cut funding for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which provides family planning counselling and contraception, but also abortion services in some countries.

Ms. Ruth, who twice ran unsuccessfully for provincial office in Ontario under her former name, Nancy Ruth Jackman, was appointed to the Senate in 2005 by former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. She initially sat as a Progressive Conservative, though that party was defunct, and joined Mr. Harper's Conservative caucus in 2006.

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Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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