FEMFACTS
11 Jun 2019

The girl who was euthanized -- except that she wasn’t

After international media sparked controversy by claiming that Noa Pothoven, 17, was legally euthanized in the Netherlands verified sources shone a light on this blatant blunder.

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The girl who was euthanized -- except that she wasn’t - NewsMavens
Noa Pothoven, Facebook

Last week’s headlines were dominated by the story of Noa Pothoven, a 17-year-old Dutch girl who, according to early news reports, was euthanized by an end-of-life clinic. She was known to the general public for her award-winning autobiographyWinnen of Leren” (Winning or Learning), where she recounted her experiences of sexual assault and how they affected her mental health.

The teenager was sexually assaulted multiple times, first at a school party when she was 11 and again the following year. Then at age 14, two men raped her in her city, Arnhem. Pothoven didn’t speak up for a long time out of shame and fear while her mental state progressively deteriorated: “To this day, my body still feels dirty”, she wrote, “My house has been broken into, my body, that can never be undone.”

Following years of struggling with post-traumatic disorder, anorexia, and severe depression she died at home, apparently after voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, as she announced in an Instagram post which was later deleted.

Although her death was covered only by a few local news outlets in the Netherlands, it has been widely -- and quite inaccurately -- reported on by the international media. Media organizations from all over the world claimed that Ms. Pothoven had been euthanized by a Dutch end-of-life clinic, thus setting off a debate on euthanasia when, in fact, nobody had said anything about it in the first place.

What’s the claim?

British tabloid the Daily Mail was the first to break the news outside the Netherlands, writing  “Dutch girl, 17, who was sexually abused at 11 and raped as a 14-year-old is legally euthanized at her home by ‘end-of-life’ clinic because she felt her life was unbearable due to depression.”

Source

According to The Guardian, the Daily Mail took the unverified version of Pothoven’s case from Central European News, a British news agency “which specialises in supplying unusual and quirky foreign stories to English-language news outlets”, Jon Henley reports. The story quickly ricocheted around the globe, first landing at Newsweek, which embellished it by adding that the teenager’s death by euthanasia had been approved in the Hague, but then it spread to -- among others -- The Independent, The Times, and The Washington Post.

Noa’s name was trending on Italian Twitter on Tuesday and the story became front-page news in Italy. Several news outlets questioned why someone that young would want and would be allowed to receive euthanasia. Newspaper la Repubblica spoke of “the case that is upsetting the Netherlands”, although it really wasn’t. The story had been reported only by Algemeen Dagblad and De Gelderlander -- which had been following the case for a while, as later confirmed by journalist Lisette Van Eijk when contacted by VICE Italy.

Pothoven’s experience was not only misreported but often romanticized. Take, for instance, this headline by  LaNazione: “She was young and beautiful. Horror in Holland: Noa’s euthanasia, she was 17, she was depressed after being raped as a child”. 

The story has been exploited to fuel the end-of-life debate, as we can see from political reactions. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the national conservative party Brothers of Italy, commented:

“[...] Her death is a defeat for everyone: it is the defeat of an entire civilization that stopped to defend life, it is the defeat of a Europe that fails to stand by women who were victims of violence. With the death of Noa, his rapist has won twice. And it's not fair. I won’t give up and will continue to fight against the culture of death, against an insensitive society that abandons fragile people and offers victims only the chance to die to relieve pain.”

Even the Pope joined the flow of news and alluded to the issue in a tweet on Wednesday:

What are the facts?

However popular, this version of the facts is quite far from the truth, as conveniently laid out by Irish journalist Naomi O’Leary. 

She checked directly with Paul Bolwerk, a reporter who had been covering the case since 2018 for De Gelderlander.

Mr. Bolwerk confirmed that last year Noa Pothoven had secretly contacted an end-of-life clinic, but her request was rejected because she needed her parents’ permission. She was also advised to finish her trauma treatment and wait until her 21st birthday because her brain needed to be fully grown.

After several hospitalisations and suicide attempts, Noa’s parents asked for electroshock therapy, which was rejected due to her age. Noa finally decided to refuse all treatments and, at the beginning of June, gave up on all fluids and food, as told by her family and the Royal Dutch Medical Association. Her parents and doctors agreed not to force feed her.

O’Leary told Buzzfeed News the spread of misinformation was helped by “negative perceptions of the Netherlands and a ‘bad stereotype” of a liberal country where ‘anything goes’.” She added, “It spread like wildfire because it feeds into the euthanasia debate. It’s such a shocking story, it’s shocking anyway, it makes people pause and say, ‘do we really want that to be legal?’”

Assisted suicide and euthanasia -- the injection of a fatal dose of a suitable drug by the patient or by a physician respectively -- has indeed been legal since 2002 in the Netherlands. In order to be granted euthanasia, the patients’ suffering needs to be unbearable and with no prospect of improvement. The request must be voluntary and free from the influence of others. Once informed of their condition and options, patients need the approval of an independent doctor (for people aged between 12 and 16, the parents’ consent is required). A doctor must also be present when the procedure is performed.

According to the most recent figures, 4% of all deaths in the Netherlands in 2017 were from euthanasia. Only 1% of patients were suffering a psychiatric disorder and only one was under 18.  

Conclusion

We -- as an international community -- lost the chance of having an open minded discussion about end of life and young people’s mental health, a topic particularly dear to Noa Pothoven who wrote her book hoping that it might prove useful for other teenagers needing psychiatric help, especially given the lack of specialized Dutch institutions.

Despite corrections and new, fact-checked articles being published, what happened is not only outrageous for the media industry but also disrespectful of Noa, her family, and everyone who is struggling with similar problems. The teenager’s experience has been made a bioethical battleground in the name of click-bait and sensationalism, while basic journalistic rules have been ignored.

We agree with Steven Pleiter, the director of the clinic contacted by the teenager to end her life, in saying that claims that Noa Pothoven was euthanized is fake news. Also when the international media mingled truths with fabricated facts, they participated in the spread of disinformation.

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