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FactCheck: Were media reports that a 17-year-old Dutch rape victim was euthanised correct?

A story that a 17-year-old rape victim had been euthanised was reported by media organisations across the world.

NEWSPAPERS AND NEWS websites around the world reported earlier this week that a 17-year-old rape victim had been euthanised in The Netherlands. 

From the US to Europe and across Twitter, claims circulated that the teenager had been legally euthanised at home. 

But is it true? Were the reports correct that a 17-year-old rape victim had been euthanised in The Netherlands?

The claim

Media reports circulated on Tuesday that a 17-year-old rape victim had been legally euthanised in The Netherlands, under the supervision of an end-of-life clinic. 

The Washington Post, the Daily Mail, the UK Independent, the Daily Beast and a host of other news organisations across the world all reported that 17-year-old Noa Pothoven had been euthanised.

The reports included details of how her death had followed a series of sexual assaults, including being raped at the age of 14 and that she had suffered from serious mental health issues. 

The evidence

Politico journalist Naomi O’Leary has broken down how the story was picked up by English language news sites from the original reporting by Dutch newspaper De Gelderlander. 

She spoke to Paul Bolwerk, a reporter who has been covering Noa’s story since 2018 for De Gelderlander.

The De Gelderlander story from 2018 reports how Noa, who had been severely ill with anorexia and other conditions, sought and was refused euthanasia without telling her parents. 

Noa had attributed her mental illness to the fact she had been sexually assaulted and had recorded her experience in the award-winning book Winning or Learning. 

She had made a series of attempts to kill herself in recent months, De Gelderlander reported. The paper reported that Noa was repeatedly hospitalised and had received various kinds of psychiatric treatment.

Bolwerk also told Politico that Noa and her family had sought electroconvulsive therapy for the teenager, but this was refused because of her age. (During this treatment, an electric current is passed through the brain while the patient is under general anesthetic). 

Noa said that she did not want any further treatment and a hospital bed was set up in her home, according to De Gelderlander. She started to refuse all fluids and food and doctors agreed not to force feed her, the paper said. She died last Sunday 2 June, De Gelderlander reported.

In a no-longer-accessible Instagram post, made in the days before her death, the teenager said:

I’ll get straight to the point: within a maximum of 10 days I will die. 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.

Following her death, international media organisations picked up the Instagram post and reported that she had been euthanised. 

In the following days, both the end-of-life clinic at the centre of the story and Noa’s parents have released statements correcting media reports that claimed she had been euthanised. 

Her parents said:

We, the parents of Noa Pothoven, are deeply saddened by the death of our daughter. Noa had chosen not to eat and drink anymore. We would like to emphasise that this was the cause of her death. She died in our presence last Sunday. We kindly ask everyone to respect our privacy so we as a family can mourn.

The clinic stated that it had received media requests from all over the world following the story, but said that due to privacy rules it could not make any statement. The clinic (which is not a physical building or centre but a network of doctors) eventually released the following statement: 

“To put an end to incorrect reporting (in foreign media in particular) about her death, we refer to the statement made by friends of Noa this afternoon: ‘Noa Pothoven did not die of euthanasia. To stop her suffering, she stopped eating and drinking.’

“De Levenseindekliniek [the end-of-life clinic] deals exclusively with euthanasia and does so explicitly within the Dutch legal framework”, the clinic added. 

Misreporting

Several newspapers and news sites that re-reported the story have now updated their articles with an editor’s note or clarifications. The Daily Beast has updated its piece with the following editor’s note:

This article has been updated to remove the suggestion that Noa Pothoven died as a result of euthanasia efforts. “Noa Pothoven did not die of euthanasia. To stop her suffering, she has stopped eating and drinking,” her friends said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast by the End of Life Clinic.

The Washington Post piece now states:

An earlier version of this story reported that Noa Pothoven’s death came via euthanasia. It was unclear to what degree doctors assisted in her death, although she earlier requested their help.

The Daily Mail, which published its story on Tuesday 4 June, updated its piece without any editor’s note or clarification. The article originally stated: “A 17-year-old girl who was raped as a young child and felt she could no longer go on living has been legally euthanised at home with the help of an ‘end-of-life clinic.”

The piece now reads: “A 17-year-old girl who was raped as a young child and felt she could no longer go on living has been legally allowed to die at home after she had sought the help of an ‘end-of-life clinic’.”

Euthanasia in The Netherlands

On Twitter, Naomi O’Leary stated that Dutch media did not report Noa’s death as a case of euthanasia. In an article for Politico, O’Leary spoke to Bolwerk. He said: “You can’t speak of active euthanisation.”

“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,” he added.
So she stayed at home and decided not to eat and drink, and it was very hard to accept that for everyone.

Under Dutch law, euthanasia is legal – but is only permissible under certain conditions, namely a voluntary and well-considered request from the patient. To fulfil the criteria the patient must be enduring unbearable suffering without any prospect of improvement and a lack of a reasonable alternative must be established.

The Royal Dutch Medical Association defines euthanasia as “the active termination of life at a patient’s voluntary and well-informed request.”

The definition of euthanasia is undoubtedly contentious, and debates about euthanasia and right to die issues continue in many countries, including Ireland. However, the details we know of Noa’s death – which followed her refusal to take fluid and foods, her parents say – do not meet the legal definition of euthanasia in the Netherlands.

Verdict

Noa Pothoven’s death was relayed by a Dutch media report. The report did not say she died by euthanasia. Since then, both the journalist who covered her story and her parents have rejected the claim that Noa died as a result of euthanasia. 

The end-of-life clinic being linked to the story did not provide details of Noa’s death but referred to a statement from her friends that she was not euthanised. 

Details of Noa’s death are limited. As far as we know – according to Dutch media and Noa’s parents – she did not die as a result of euthanasia. Dutch media reported that she died following a refusal to take food and fluids, with doctors agreeing not to force feed her. 

There is no evidence that an euthanasia clinic was involved and the details of her death that are publicly known do not meet the definition of euthanasia under Dutch law.

International media reports were not based on accurate details of her death and it was incorrect to state, as many news organisations did, that she was euthanised. 

As a result, we rate the media reports that Noa Pothoven was euthanised: FALSE

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is inaccurate. 

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

If you need to talk, support is available:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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