Dozens of English-language news sites, including the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, the Daily Caller, Newsweek and The Sun falsely reported that a 17-year-old girl from the Netherlands was legally allowed to die by euthanasia. Most of these outlets are reporting the same basic story: that Noa Pothoven, who was a survivor of both rape and molestation and struggled with deep psychological trauma, was allowed to access end-of-life care and died at home last week. The story is not true, according to a journalist who has been covering her case for years, but that hasn’t stopped it from spreading at lightning speeds in the United States, especially across anti-abortion and conservative news sites that oppose assisted suicide.
Naomi O’Leary, a reporter with Politico Europe, was first to point out on Wednesday that a false version of Pothoven’s story is going viral across much of the English-speaking world, apparently due to a mistranslation of a Dutch article about her death.
O’Leary tweeted that she spoke to Paul Bolwerk, a journalist who’s been covering Pothoven’s tragic story for several years.
According to a 2018 story Bolwerk wrote, Pothoven says she was molested at 11 and 12, and raped at 14, and has struggled with intense psychological trauma ever since; his story says she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anorexia, and stopped attending school. At one point, she was admitted to the hospital in critical condition because she was so underweight and put into an induced coma to force-feed her, he reported.
When Pothoven was 16, she told Bolwerk, she approached the Levenseind clinic in The Hague “without her parents’ knowledge” and asked if she qualified for legal euthanasia. The clinic said no. Per Dutch assisted suicide laws, Pothoven’s family would have to have been involved in the decision, though technically minors over age 12 are allowed to request assisted suicide. But assisted suicides involving minors, especially minors without a terminal illness, appear to be exceedingly rare.
Pothoven’s family, as Bolwerk reported, was desperate to help her, and expressed frustration to him that it was so difficult to find in-patient anorexia treatment for her or a facility to treat her depression that was appropriate for a minor; they said long waiting lists had made both options untenable. They sought permission to try electroshock therapy, which was also refused due to her age.
After that was refused, per O’Leary, Pothoven said she wanted to refuse all further treatment.
“At the start of June,” O’Leary reports, “she began refusing all fluids and food, and her parents and doctors agreed not to force feed her.” Several Dutch sites are reporting that Pothoven subsequently died at home as a result of refusing food and liquids.
So, how did the misinformation that Pothoven was legally granted and subsequently died by euthanasia start to spread? According to DW, an English-language German news site, it seems to have stemmed from a misunderstanding of a social media post Pothoven wrote that referred to her doctors’ decision not to force-feed her. The now-deleted post reportedly read, in part: “it is finished” and “It is decided I will be released because my suffering is unbearable.”
One of the earliest sites to misreport that Pothoven’s death was a result of euthanasia was an Australian news site (which also made sure to supplement the story with a bunch of photos they’d culled from her Instagram). From there, as O’Leary points out, the story started to go viral worldwide and is trending in Italy, a country where right-to-die laws face fierce resistance from conservative Catholic lawmakers.
That gets to the other reason that Pothoven’s story is spreading so quickly, especially in the United States. The idea that the Netherlands grants “baseless” assisted suicide requests is an attractive one for the American anti-abortion lobby, who are eager to use it as proof of the inhumanity of those laws. (Opposition to abortion rights and right-to-die laws are twin issues in the American anti-abortion movement.) In 2012, then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum claimed that elderly Dutch people were being killed against their will by medical euthanasia, and were even wearing “don’t euthanize me” bracelets. None of that is true. When that was pointed out to Santorum’s press secretary, she responded, “It’s a matter of what’s in his heart. He’s a strongly pro-life person.”
What that means today is that sites like the National Review are picking up Pothoven’s story, where writer Wesley J. Smith used it to fulminate about assisted suicide laws, which he called “abandonment most foul.” Those sites were joined by more reputable news outlets like the Daily Beast, Newsweek, and the Washington Post’s Morning Mix, all of which have breaking news reporters who often have to rely on the work of other outlets and get stories up very quickly. (Some of those sites have already begun “updating” their stories without actively correcting them. The Beast, for instance, attached an editor’s note that read, “This article has been updated to clarify that it is unclear if Noa Pothoven died from active euthanasia efforts, or whether doctors assisted in her reported death.” At the National Review, the evasive update reads: “New information has come to light about this story, and we are in the process of updating this post.”)
Even as the story was debunked on Wednesday mornings, new sites were putting up misleading versions of the story; Fox News went with the headline “Dutch rape victim, 17, dies after euthanasia request,” which managed to strongly imply that Pothoven had died by euthanasia, even as the text of the story reported that it was “unclear” how she’d actually died. The false version of the story, though, still lives on in the video version of the Fox story, produced on Tuesday. It’s also begun to spread on YouTube, where the mechanisms to correct misinformation are still shaky, at best.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified DW as a Dutch news site; they’re a German publication.