John McCain was interviewed Friday by the New York Times, which published a summary in this morning's edition. The Times recounted a question-and-answer with McCain on the subject of gay adoption as follows:

Mr. McCain, who with his wife, Cindy, has an adopted daughter, said flatly that he opposed allowing gay couples to adopt. "I think that we've proven that both parents are important in the success of a family so, no, I don't believe in gay adoption," he said.

We don't know precisely what the Times asked McCain, so we don't know what he means by opposing "gay adoption." There is some ambiguity in the phrase. Does "gay adoption" mean adoption by a single gay person, which is permitted in 49 of the 50 states? Or does it mean legal adoption by same-sex couples, which is permitted in some jurisdictions in about half the states? The Times's summary suggests the interviewers were referring to adoption by same-sex couples, but I'd want to see a transcript to be sure. [See update below.]

Either way, it's a terrible, thoughtless quote. Emphasis on thoughtless, because I don't think McCain has given even a moment of thought to the subtleties of talking about this. The second half of the quote is a non sequitur. Adoption is necessarily a context in which "both parents" are unavailable, so it makes no sense to cite the superiority of biological parents as a reason to prohibit adoption by gay individuals or same-sex couples.

In the context of the culture wars, I think McCain hears a question like, "Do you favor gay adoption?" as, "Do you think gay parents are as good as a married mother and father?" I don't think he hears it as, "Do you think that, once a child is up for adoption because his married mother and father are out of the picture, a gay person should be eligible to adopt that child?"

There is considerable debate about the first question, though even if you think opposite-sex parents are generally better it's not obvious why this should lead you to oppose adoption by gay couples under all circumstances. Hardly anybody answers the second question — whether gay individuals should be able to adopt — in the negative. Only one state does so (Florida). That can't be McCain's position. But his answer has created enough doubt about his position that the burden is now on his campaign to clarify what he meant.

UPDATE: A reader has pointed me to the transcript of the interview. Judge for yourself. It looks to me like McCain is suggesting that gay couples should not be able to adopt children, even if the alternative is foster care. (I wish there had been much more follow-up, since the final question is phrased in terms of McCain's "preference" for "traditional couples.") He says nothing about whether gay individuals should be able to adopt children. If he thinks gay individuals -- but not couples -- should be able to adopt children the upshot is this: McCain believes those kids are better raised by one parent than by two.