If you were online at any time in the last day or so, you may have seen one of the following headlines: "17-Year-Old Dutch Girl Who Was Raped as A Child Is Legally Euthanized" (Daily Beast), "An Anguished Dutch Teenager Who Was Raped As a Child Is Euthanized at Her Request" (Washington Post), or "Dutch Rape Victim, 17, Uses Legal Euthanasia to End Life" (Fox News).
It's no wonder that this story made headlines, both in the U.S. and across the world. It's terrible. Noa Pothoven, the girl in the story, was euthanized with the state's consent before she was old enough to vote. Even for people who support the right to die (as I do), there was something about this that just seemed fucked up. She's 17! Most 17-year-olds have the maturity level of a cat after too much nip. They can't legally get tattooed in this country without a parent's permission, and in the Netherlands, the state will euthanize them? It would be one thing if Pothoven had a terminal illness, but despite her mental anguish, Pothoven's physical health was reportedly fine. It just sounded... wrong.
Well, it was wrong. Despite the million-or-so think-pieces this event inspired, as Politico Europe reporter Naomi O'Leary first pointed out on Twitter, much of the media got this piece completely incorrect. This story originated in Dutch-language newspapers, which didn't claim that Pothoven died from euthanasia at all. In fact, as O'Leary found out by interviewing a reporter who'd followed Pothoven's story for several years, the teen requested euthanasia from the state (without her parents' knowledge), was refused, and died this month by starving herself.
O'Leary spelled out what happened on Twitter:
"The family had tried many kinds of psychiatric treatment and Noa Pothoven was repeatedly hospitalized; she made a series of attempts to kill herself in recent months. In desperation, the family sought electroshock therapy, 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. 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."
O'Leary says it took her all of 10 minutes to figure out the truth, but, of course, by that time the story had spread all across the internet. To their credit, some outlets, including the Washington Post and the Daily Beast, have updated their stories with corrections, but it's not hard to see how this happened. It's how media works: Someone does the actual reporting and the rest of us vultures aggregate, spin, add analysis or context, maybe fuck up a few minor details, and presto! Content ready to post.
Still, there can be serious consequences when outlets get stories like this wrong. Pothaven has parents, and in addition to dealing with the loss of their daughter, now they have much of the internet calling them monsters, and this is a direct result of failing to fact check on the media's part. And besides the completely unnecessary piling on of the family, this story could be a setback for death with dignity or right to die movements. The Pope, for instance, used the event to tweet, "Euthanasia and assisted suicide are a defeat for all. We are called never to abandon those who are suffering, never giving up but caring and loving to restore hope." Apparently he didn't get the update.
While it's true that the internet exacerbates the spread of both information and misinformation, this system of content aggregation isn't exactly new. Not all that long ago, only the biggest newspapers could keep bureaus outside their home areas, so most media outlets subscribed to wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters, both of which were founded in the mid-19th century. Back then, news reports would get transmitted via telegraph and disseminated in papers throughout the country, but it's not so much different from the system we have now. The difference is that today reports are transmitted online and through social media, where they get endlessly distorted, repeated, and rarely fact-checked, even by those of us doing the aggregating.
I am, by the way, as guilty of overly aggregating as anyone (this post included), and had the perma-skeptics over at Reason magazine not published a piece on all the misreporting in this case, I'd probably still think Pothoven was euthanized by the state. Still, it's a good reminder that when you read something that seems too weird to be true, there's a good chance that it very well is.