On Tuesday, English-language media outlets across the world reported that the Netherlands permitted a doctor to assist 17-year-old rape victim Noa Pothoven in killing herself. Euthanasia is legal in cases of “hopeless and unbearable” suffering in the Netherlands, but Pothoven did not die from euthanasia. In fact, her euthanasia request was denied. Instead, she starved herself to death, against the wishes of the state or her parents.
Both supporters and opponents of euthanasia spread the fake news. “A 17-year-old rape victim was NOT euthanised in the Netherlands,” POLITICO Europe correspondent Naomi O’Leary tweeted. She noted that Euro News, the British papers the Independent and the Daily Mail, and the American Daily Beast “are all wrong. It took me about 10 mins to check with the reporter who wrote the original Dutch story. Noa Pothoven asked for euthanasia and was refused.”
A 17-year-old rape victim was NOT euthanised in the Netherlands.@euronews @Independent @DailyMailUK @dailybeast are all wrong
It took me about 10 mins to check with the reporter who wrote the original Dutch story.
Noa Pothoven asked for euthanasia and was refused (cont.) pic.twitter.com/e7PYQSCxG1
— Naomi O'Leary (@NaomiOhReally) June 5, 2019
Yet by the time O’Leary alerted the world, the story had already spread far and wide — to Australia, the United States, India, and Italy.
O’Leary linked to an article from the Dutch newspaper De Gelderlander, reporting the denial of euthanasia. Around June 2018, the 16-year-old Pothoven asked the Levenseind Clinic in The Hague whether she could be put to death. The clinic told her no.
“They think I’m too young to die. They think I should complete the trauma treatment and that my brain must first be fully grown. That lasts until you are 21,” Pothoven told De Gelderlander. “I’m devastated, because I can’t wait that long anymore.”
O’Leary noted that “Noa Pothoven had been severely ill with anorexia and other conditions for some time. Without telling her parents, she sought and was refused euthanasia. The family had tried many kinds of psychiatric treatment and Noa Pothoven was repeatedly hospitalised; she made a series of attempts to kill herself in recent months. In desperation the family sought electro shocktherapy, which was refused due to her young age.”
“After electroshock therapy was refused, Pothoven insisted she wanted no further treatment and a hospital bed was set up at home in the care of her parents. At the start of June she began refusing all fluids and food, and her parents and doctors agreed not to force feed her,” O’Leary added. In other words, she starved herself to death.
“During the last months she had undertaken several attempts to commit suicide,” he said.
“She got depressed more and more, and said, ‘Well, OK, now I press on the button. Now I say I will stop with all treatments.’ And that was very stressful for everyone, including the parents, the doctors, the psychiatrists,” De Gelderlander‘s Paul Bolwerk told O’Leary in an interview. “So she stayed at home and decided not to eat and drink, and it was very hard to accept that for everyone.”
“A decision to move to palliative care and not to force feed at the request of the patient is not euthanasia,” O’Leary noted. “Dutch media did not report Noa Pothoven’s death as a case of euthanasia. This idea only appeared in English language pickups of Dutch reporting.”
A decision to move to palliative care and not to force feed at the request of the patient is not euthanasia.
Dutch media did not report Noa Pothoven's death as a case of euthanasia. This idea only appeared in English language pickups of Dutch reporting.
— Naomi O'Leary (@NaomiOhReally) June 5, 2019
The Guardian‘s Jon Henley traced the false story back to Central European News, a newswire. “According to multiple sources at British national newspapers, news outlets were alerted to the story by the newswire Central European News, which specialises in supplying unusual and quirky foreign stories to English-language news outlets,” he wrote. “CEN, which has previously been accused of providing unreliable information, did not immediately return a request for comment. Michael Leidig, who runs the agency, has always contested claims that it provides dubious information.”
Even if the fake news origination at CEN, English-language outlets should have double-checked.
The report had some plausibility. In 2017, 4 percent of all deaths in the Netherlands came at the hands of doctors practicing euthanasia or assisted suicide. This accounted for 6,091 people, more than 80 percent of whom had reportedly incurable cancer, neurological disorders, cardiovascular diseases, or pulmonary disease. Only 1 percent had a psychiatric disorder, and only one was under 18.
As Reason‘s Elizabeth Nolan Brown noted, “Many on social media have been shaming the parents for allegedly ‘allowing’ [Pothoven] to go through state-sanctioned assisted suicide; they did no such thing. Hurling insults at Pothoven’s poor parents is only one staring of the strange moral panic and tribal vitriol that this story quickly spawned.”
Brown also noted a tweet from David Marcus, a New York correspondent for The Federalist. Marcus attempted to weaponize the fake news of Noa Pothoven’s euthanasia against National Review writer David French. He suggested that the practice of “murdering teenagers” will come to America, with French’s approval.
— David Marcus (@BlueBoxDave) June 5, 2019
Not only was the news wrong, but this suggestion was absurd. French has consistently opposed euthanasia and supported pro-life issues. As Ricochet editor Bethany Mandel put it, “There is nobody more pro-life across the board than David French.”
There is nobody more pro-life across the board than David French. This French as stand in for conservative squish analogy needs a reality check.
— Bethany S. Mandel (@bethanyshondark) June 5, 2019
The David French connection aside, this fake news on euthanasia spread because Americans are rightly concerned about the state-sanctioned doctor-abetted practice of assisted suicide. Yet even the Netherlands would not approve euthanasia for Noa Pothoven. There are limits on euthanasia, even in a country that has legalized it since 2002.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.