McCain’s Adoption Contradiction

First published at on July 21, 2008

Here’s the latest for the “politicians trying to have it both ways” file: John McCain on gay adoption.

Asked about the subject by the New York Times, McCain made clear that he opposes it. Here’s the relevant portion of the interview in full:

Q: “President Bush believes that gay couples should not be permitted to adopt children. Do you agree with that?”

McCain: “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.”

Q: “Even if the alternative is the kid staying in an orphanage, or not having parents?”

McCain: “I encourage adoption and I encourage the opportunities for people to adopt children; I encourage the process being less complicated so they can adopt as quickly as possible. And Cindy and I are proud of being adoptive parents.”

Q: “But your concern would be that the couple should be a traditional couple?”

McCain: “Yes.”

A few days later, after considerable criticism, McCain’s director of communications issued the following “clarification.”

“McCain 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.”

Let’s start by making something clear: nobody gives a flying wallenda what McCain’s (or any other candidate’s) “personal preferences” are. My personal preference is that children be raised by parents who dress them in tasteful Ralph Lauren sweater sets, but I’m not about to translate that into public policy.

Second, the follow-up question in the initial interview could not have been clearer — “Even if the alternative is the kid staying in an orphanage?” — and, at best, McCain punted on that question. Given the thousands of children in need of good homes — often due to heterosexual irresponsibility — and the number of gay couples selflessly stepping up to the plate to provide for them, McCain’s response was nothing short of shameful.

McCain’s “clarification” just added insult to injury. Through an aide, he went out on a major limb and said — are you ready? — that having “caring parental figures” is better for children than abandonment. Now there’s some bold leadership for you. (Notice that the campaign couldn’t even bring itself to mention gay parents— just “caring parental figures.”)

Everyone knows what’s really going on here. McCain is trying to impress the religious right by being against gay stuff. But in the year 2008, insulting gay parents isn’t cool in the eyes of moderate voters. So he flip-flopped — but in a vague enough way that he can pretend he didn’t.

Let’s suppose one believes, as McCain apparently does, that all else being equal it is better for children to be raised by both a mother and a father. I think this is a defensible position, although the best available research on gay parents suggests that their children turn out just as well as those of straight parents. But let’s grant the premise for the sake of argument.

What follows with respect to gay adoption? In practice, virtually nothing. That’s because even if — all else being equal, which it seldom is — straight couples make better parents, gay couples clearly make very good parents, and adoption is one arena where we cannot afford to make the best the enemy of the good.

Indeed, parenting in general is such an arena. Otherwise no one would be fit to have children.

In general, children do better with more-educated parents than with less educated ones, but we don’t conclude that all prospective parents must have college degrees. In general, children do better with comfortable financial resources than with meager ones, but we don’t insist that prospective parents must have higher-than-average incomes. In general, children do better with grandparents around, but we don’t tell orphans that they themselves should never become parents. And so on.

Here’s another thing that research and common sense tell us: in general, children who are planned do better than children who are “accidental.” And unlike straight couples, gay couples never say “Oops, we’re pregnant.” So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that children of gay parents do as well as they do.

I’m not suggesting that children of gay parents don’t face unique challenges. But the main one happens to be other people’s ignorance. When such ignorance comes from an adoptive father, it’s surprising. When it comes from a potential president, it’s downright unacceptable.