Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth told a meeting of international women's equality rights groups Monday morning that it would be best for them to "shut the f--k up" about their concerns over the government's maternal health initiative.

Ruth sponsored the meeting on Parliament Hill, in which groups such as the Association for Women's Rights in Development, Action Aid International and Action Canada for Population and Development participated in a panel discussion questioning Canada's leadership in the promotion of gender equality and women's rights.

With the recent controversy about the government's plans to omit funding for abortion from its maternal health policy for developing countries, the panelists said it was an issue they couldn't ignore.

However, during the question and answer period, Ruth advised the room that pushing the abortion issue was not the right strategy if they really wanted progress on the maternal health issue. Her comments were caught on tape by the Toronto Star.

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"We've got five weeks or whatever left until the G8 starts. Shut the f--k up on this issue," she said. "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."

She went on to say, "Canada is still a country with free and accessible abortion. Leave it there. Don't make this an election issue."

Afterward, Ruth was asked about her comments. "I'm not going to repeat them in front of microphones. You gotta be crazy."

She explained that people are more worried about jobs and mortgages. "To deal with more altruistic things, even though I think we should, is perhaps not relative and not a seller right now."

"I think it is a mistake to make a public debate about abortion for the G8."

'Time to speak out is now'

Liberal MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett said Ruth's comments shocked the room. Bennett said she thinks Ruth's advice exposes something the government has denied — that for those who speak out against the government, there will be repercussions.

Funding cuts are one example of a repercussion the groups fear.

But the activists say they won't be taking Ruth up on her suggestion to keep quiet. Katherine McDonald is executive director of Action Canada for Population and Development.

"The time to speak out is now. If we hadn't spoken out over the last three months, contraception would not be part of this initiative."

McDonald is referring to the government's reversal on its initial announcement that family planning would not be part of the maternal health plan.

Bennett echoed another panelist at the meeting, saying that women in the world didn't achieve what they have over the years by "shutting up."