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.

McCain backs off on opposition to "gay adoption":

In an interview with the New York Times published on Sunday John McCain stated that "I don't believe in gay adoption." That morning I blogged here about this statement, calling for a clarification from the McCain campaign about whether he really opposes all adoptions by gay individuals and couples. It seemed to me unlikely that that was really his view and that, in the context of the culture war, he was really expressing a preference for opposite-sex adoptions.

Today the McCain campaign issued a statement on gay adoptions, sent to Andrew Sullivan's blog:

McCain could have been clearer in the interview in stating that his position on gay adoption is that it is a state issue, just as he made it clear in the interview that marriage is a state issue. He was not endorsing any federal legislation.

McCain's expressed his personal preference for children to be raised by a mother and a father wherever possible. However, as an adoptive father himself, McCain believes children deserve loving and caring home environments, and he recognizes that there are many abandoned children who have yet to find homes. McCain believes that in those situations that caring parental figures are better for the child than the alternative. - Jill Hazelbaker, Director of Communications

We could quibble over whether this statement is really a clarification or a retreat. In any event, it's welcome. First, McCain properly affirms that this is a state, not federal, matter. Second, whereas before McCain suggested that it's always best for children to be raised by mothers and fathers, he now acknowledges this often won't be possible since "there are many abandoned children who have yet to find homes." Third, the seeming insistence on opposite-sex adoptions is replaced by what the campaign calls "loving and caring home environments" and "caring parental figures." It's the kind of language about families I would expect to see in a law review article written by a gay activist.

It's not perfect. It doesn't explicitly state that McCain "favors gay adoptions" in some circumstances. It tries to mollify religious conservatives by indicating McCain's "personal preference" for a mother and father in adoptions. (That effort failed: the anti-gay Family Research Council is now concerned that McCain is "muddying the waters" of his earlier opposition to gay adoptions.)

While the new statement could have been clearer in repudiating McCain's earlier answer on the issue, it does accomplish a couple of important things. It makes it clear that McCain is not opposed to adoption by gay individuals. That was in any event a politically untenable stand since only Florida prohibits adoptions by all homosexual individuals. And McCain's new statement suggests that adoption by homosexual couples is preferable to leaving children in foster care. If so, that's a more ambitious stand in favor of gay parenting, since such "second parent" adoptions are now permitted in only some jurisdictions in about half the states. On the whole, unlike the seemingly hard line he took against gay adoption on Sunday, today's statement is more nuanced and is defensible given the current state of the social science on gay parenting.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. McCain backs off on opposition to "gay adoption":
  2. Thoughtless: