Dutch teen's death sets off media flurry and corrections

Noa Pothoven's death set off debates about the nature of the Dutch law on euthanasia and the spread of misinformation, after inaccurate reports that she had died via legal euthanasia. PHOTO: NOA POTHOVEN/INSTAGRAM
Noa Pothoven's death set off debates about the nature of the Dutch law on euthanasia and the spread of misinformation, after inaccurate reports that she had died via legal euthanasia. PHOTO: NOA POTHOVEN/INSTAGRAM

LONDON • By the time she was 17, a Dutch teenager had written a harrowing memoir recounting repeated sexual assaults and her subsequent experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anorexia.

Last year, when she was 16, she approached an end-of-life clinic in the Netherlands seeking euthanasia or assisted suicide but was rejected because her parents had been unaware of her request and she needed their permission, according to a local newspaper profile published in December.

Last Sunday, when her sister announced that the 17-year-old Noa Pothoven had died earlier that day - without revealing where or how - the story ricocheted and metastasised around the globe.

It spurred an outpouring of condolences on social media and set off debates about the nature of the Dutch law on euthanasia and the spread of misinformation.

In the initial absence of detailed information from medical officials or from Noa's family, the Internet was flooded with inaccurate reports that she had died via legal euthanasia, raising questions about how someone so young could be allowed to die voluntarily.

But the teenager did not die of euthanasia, according to her family, the Dutch health minister and the Royal Dutch Medical Association. She had stopped eating and drinking, her relatives said in a statement, and she was at home in the eastern Netherlands when she died, Dutch news outlets reported.

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Mr Steven Pleiter, director of the end-of-life clinic in The Hague that Noa approached last year to help end her life, would not go into details about her case because of privacy reasons, but he said by phone last Wednesday: "It is a terrible story of a young woman who made the decision to end her life."

He added: "It would be fake news if we made this euthanasia."

The story of the teenage author appeared to have even caught the attention of Pope Francis, who alluded to the case last Wednesday in a Twitter post. "Euthanasia and assisted suicide are a defeat for all," his account tweeted.

But as Noa's case became a battleground for arguments about the right to die, many commentators criticised news outlets in Europe and the United States for wrongly reporting the means of her death. Ms Naomi O'Leary, a journalist with Politico, initially debunked those stories in a post on Twitter.

A private Instagram post written in Dutch by Noa's sister, Isa Pothoven, said: "You deserve a lot better, but Noa, go to sleep... We will have to let go of you."

In her autobiography, Noa wrote that at the age of 11, she was sexually assaulted at a school party. The next year, she was assaulted again at a classmate's party. At 14, she was raped by two men.

She did not tell anyone for a long time, she wrote, but the experience took a destructive toll. She recounted in her book, Winning Or Learning, which was released last November, that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anorexia.

"To this day, my body still feels dirty," the teenager wrote. "My house has been broken into, my body, that can never be undone."

After Ms O'Leary, the Politico journalist, wrote a Twitter thread criticising the misleading news coverage, Euronews, a network based in France and one of the first English-language websites to report the story inaccurately, issued a correction. Other prominent news outlets also removed the claim that she had died via euthanasia.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 09, 2019, with the headline 'Dutch teen's death sets off media flurry and corrections'. Print Edition | Subscribe