TORONTO - The exclusion of abortion in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's G8 maternal-health initiative had tempers flaring in the Ontario legislature Thursday.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and two female colleagues interrupted the start of question period by standing up and covering their mouths with a piece of paper marked with an X.

The protest was meant to draw attention to federal funding cuts to women's groups, which the NDP claim is Harper's way of silencing critics who dare to question his policies.

Heckled by a Liberal backbencher, Horwath, France Gelinas and Cheri DiNovo stood in silence until the Sergeant-at-Arms took away their props.

"Women across Canada refuse to be silenced about abortion or any other issue that..." Horwath said, before her microphone was cut off by Speaker Steve Peters.

The steamed Speaker chastised the women for flouting the rules of the legislature, which prohibit props of any kind unless he approves them first.

"I'm disturbed at the incident that has just taken place, because it was obvious that it was planned," he said.

Reporters, who were told about the protest in advance, raised Peters' suspicions when they showed up in the legislature armed with cameras.

The demonstration wasn't "the normal way to do things," but the issue is too important to ignore, Horwath said outside the legislature.

"I believe it was the right thing to do," she said.

"Anything that any other MPP in this chamber can do, I would encourage to do ... to try to get the prime minister of this country to acknowledge that women do have reproductive rights here, that we do have the right to abortion and that we do have the right to have a voice in the issues that affect our lives and affect our health."

The demonstration came just a few days after Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth shocked aid groups by using an expletive when warning them of a possible backlash for opposing Harper's foreign-policy position on abortion.

The remarks were reportedly meant as friendly advice, but were met with gasps of disbelief from the groups.

The Harper government has come under fire for insisting that it won't fund abortion as part of its centrepiece child- and maternal-health initiative at the G8 Summit in Huntsville, Ont., next month.

Many non-governmental organizations say Harper is bending to religious fundamentalists and they worry the government will cut off their funding if they complain publicly.

Ontario's reigning Liberals support abortion as part of the range of services available to women, but they won't be lodging a protest with their federal counterparts over the abortion controversy, said Health Minister Deb Matthews.

"I have to let the federal government take the lead on issues around international development," she said.

"What I can tell you is that as a woman, and as a member of this government, I fully support access for women to family planning."

The Opposition Conservatives, who dismissed the NDP protest as a publicity stunt, were eager to change the subject to the controversial harmonized sales tax when asked about the abortion issue.

"You know what? These questions are all going to be dealt with at the G8, and we'll let the politicians at the federal level deal with that," said Conservative critic Lisa MacLeod.

"Literally, I'm really interested in talking about the HST today."