Ben Carson apologizes for comments on gay people

Updated 2:56 PM EST, Thu March 5, 2015
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(CNN) —  

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson apologized for commenting Wednesday that prisoners’ changes after they leave jail proves being gay is a choice, but said that the science is still murky on the issue.

And then, in a radio appearance later Wednesday, he criticized CNN for airing the comments he’d made in an interview and said he won’t be addressing gay rights issues for the duration of his presidential campaign.

Carson had asserted Wednesday morning on CNN’s “New Day” that homosexuality is a choice because people “go into prison straight – and when they come out, they’re gay.”

He backtracked in a statement afterward, saying he “realized that my choice of language does not reflect fully my heart on gay issues.”

“I do not pretend to know how every individual came to their sexual orientation. I regret that my words to express that concept were hurtful and divisive. For that I apologize unreservedly to all that were offended,” he added.

READ: Ben Carson launches exploratory committee

Carson referenced his medical education and his work at Johns Hopkins Hospital and asserted that the verdict is still out on whether people are born either gay or straight.

“Some of our brightest minds have looked at this debate, and up until this point there have been no definitive studies that people are born into a specific sexuality,” he said.

In a radio interview with Sean Hannity, Carson then said he won’t be talking about gay rights anymore “because every time I’m gaining momentum, the liberal press says, let’s talk about gay rights – and I’m just not going to fall for that anymore.”

Still, he said, he believes marriage should be restricted to one man and one woman.

“We have something that’s worked just fine for thousands of years to create a nurturing environment for raising children, and I think that’s where we ought to leave it,” Carson told Hannity.

During the interview Wednesday morning, when Carson was asked by Chris Cuomo whether being gay is a choice, he replied: “Absolutely.”

“Because a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight – and when they come out, they’re gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question,” Carson said.

That argument, Carson said, “thwarts” the notion that homosexuality isn’t a choice. His statements are at odds with the majority of the medical community, including the American Psychological Association, which says “most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern also outlined the scientific arguments against this particular belief last year.

Carson’s comment comes as Republicans try to avoid the kinds of incendiary comments on cultural issues that cost the party two Senate races – when Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock drew national attention for their remarks on rape – and hurt Mitt Romney in 2012.

Other Republicans who are considering 2016 campaigns were silent on Carson’s comments Wednesday, with several failing to respond to requests for comment from CNN.

Carson also said he believes the issue of allowing or restricting same-sex marriage should be decided on the state level, rather than by federal courts – even as the Supreme Court prepares to take up a case this spring that could legalize gay marriage nationwide.

Opinion: Prison doesn’t make people ‘come out’ gay

He said it’s possible to grant the legal rights that accompany marriage to same-sex couples – or to any two people at all – without applying the word “marriage” to their relationships.

“Why do gay people want to get married? Why do they say they want to get married? Because they want to have various rights – property rights, visitation rights,” he said. “Why can’t any two human beings, I don’t care what their sexual orientation is, why can’t they have the legal right to do those things? That does not require changing the definition of marriage.”

CNN’s Ashley Killough contributed to this report.