“Ryan White’s story humanized AIDS in a way that was critical to the passage of that bill,” he said in an email. “As a legislator, you can debate the facts and figures of a public health concern like AIDS, but when you hear moving personal accounts like Ryan’s, that’s what sticks with you.”
Still, the practice is not without critics.
Civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” said it puts too much focus on the emotional response to the story of the victim.
“The problem is that naming a piece of legislation after a victim, who naturally has a lot of emotional support from both legislators and members of the public, tends to favor legislation which is not well thought through,” he said. “It tends to emphasize the emotional rather than the rational reasons.”
Silverglate has argued that Congress and state legislatures should adopt rules so that bill titles can only describe what the bills would do. And naming bills after victims doesn’t always work.
Kristen’s Act originally passed in 2000, dedicating resources to establishing a national database of missing adults for 10 years. However, it was not reauthorized this past session.
The law, which was designed to help locate missing adults, was named for 18-year-old Kristen Modafferi, who went missing three weeks after her birthday.
“It was so frustrating to her parents because there was nothing to help find missing people her age,” said Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), who sponsored the original bill.
Myrick said the initial response to Kristen’s Act was favorable.
“People thought it was very reasonable,” she said, explaining that Kristen’s story had added an emotional component. “If you have an individual name attached to it, there’s a story behind it. You have the emotional aspect of connecting it to somebody’s family.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.