Misreported

How a false story spread that a teen rape survivor had been euthanized in the Netherlands

Noa Pothoven with her memoir. (Instagram)

In recent days, a shocking story proliferated around the world: A 17-year-old Dutch rape survivor, who suffered from severe depression and anorexia, had died by euthanasia at a clinic in the Netherlands. But as The Guardian reports, the story wasn’t true — at least not in its entirety.

Noa Pothoven did in fact die on June 2. But she was not euthanized; she had died in her parents’ home, after voluntarily refusing to eat and drink. Her parents and doctors decided that they would not force-feed her.

Pothoven was the author of an award-winning memoir titled Winning or Learning, in which she attributed her struggles with depression and anorexia to incidents of sexual assault during her childhood. She had experienced repeated hospital stays and involuntary treatments; at one point, she was so perilously underweight that she was put in a coma so doctors could feed her intravenously. Pothoven had also attempted to commit suicide.

In an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Gelderlander last year, Pothoven revealed that she had contacted the Levenseinde, or “end-of-life” clinic in The Hague to find out if she could be considered for euthanasia or assisted suicide. Under strict and specific conditions, euthanasia, in which a doctor ends a person’s life, and assisted suicide, in which a person is given the means to end their own life, are legal in the Netherlands. But the clinic turned down Pothoven’s request.

In light of the false reports that had been circulating throughout the media, however, the clinic issued a statement from Pothoven’s friends saying that she “did not die of euthanasia. To stop her suffering, she stopped eating and drinking.”

Days before her death, in fact, Pothoven had revealed that she was no longer taking food and drink, posting her decision in what she called a “sorrowful last post” on Instagram, which has since been deleted.

“I’ll get straight to the point: Within a maximum of 10 days I will die,” she wrote. “After years of fighting and struggling it is over. I have stopped eating and drinking for a while now, and after many conversations and reviews it has been decided that I will be let go because my suffering is unbearable. It is finished. For so long I have not really been living, I have been surviving, and even that not really. I have not really been alive for so long, I am surviving, and even that not really. I breathe but I am no longer alive.”

So how had the false story spread? According to Politico, Dutch media never reported that Pothoven had died by euthanasia. The source of the erroneous information is not entirely clear, but The Guardian reports that British publications received it from the Central European News (CEN), “which specializes in supplying unusual and quirky foreign stories to English-language news outlets.” CEN has previously been accused of propagating inaccurate news updates; the wire unsuccessfully attempted to sue Buzzfeed over such allegations.

Paul Bolwerk, a journalist at De Gelderlander who has followed Pothoven’s story, confirmed in an interview with Politico that “you can’t speak of active euthanization” in this case. “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,’” Bolwerk said. “And that was very stressful for everyone, including the parents, the doctors, the psychiatrists.

Read more at the Guardian and Politico.

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