The facts of Noa Pothoven’s life are not in dispute. The 17-year-old Dutch girl had written a book, Winning or Learning, that outlined in grim detail the events of her childhood and early adolescence. At 11, she said, she was sexually assaulted at a party. At 14, she was raped by two men. Afterward, she suffered from severe trauma and depression and openly discussed her desire to die. When she died earlier this week, international hysteria swiftly eclipsed the truth. Pothoven had been euthanized at an end-of-life clinic, headlines at the right-leaning Daily Mail and a handful of other websites proclaimed. A writer for Red State, a conservative website, linked Pothoven’s death, and euthanasia itself, to abortion rights. “With euthanasia, the very maleable [sic] terms of ‘unbearable’ and ‘suffering’ have begun the same slide toward total moral bankruptcy,” she claimed. Pope Francis tweeted his condemnation.
At first, it seemed difficult to fault anyone for the outrage. The euthanasia of a troubled teenage girl would have been a frightening new development in the fight for the right to die. It’s just not what happened to Pothoven. She died in palliative care at home after she had stopped eating and drinking water. It was a form of suicide, but it was not a killing. Nevertheless, the original story spread far and fast until, as Madeleine Aggeler reported for the Cut, Naomi O’Leary of Politico Europe debunked it in a viral Twitter thread. Pothoven had indeed sought euthanasia, but was turned away because of her age in an incident previously reported in the Dutch press. Her family had pursued psychiatric care, including electroconvulsive therapy, for her but had encountered obstacles.
There are several aspects to this euthanasia-story-that-wasn’t. It is a tragedy lost in translation, a reporting failure picked up and repeated by English-language outlets whose writers and editors didn’t uphold basic research standards. Dutch right-to-die laws are permissive: They do permit the euthanasia of children in certain circumstances. But none of this fully explains why so many people believed that Dutch doctors killed a teenage rape survivor. Had Pothoven’s death actually occurred in the way the Daily Mail reported it — she sought and received euthanasia in the absence of a fatal illness — the story would have marked a disturbing escalation in the country’s practices. O’Leary, in a follow-up article, described Pothoven’s supposed euthanasia as a story “too horrible to be true.” But it isn’t simply the sensational nature of the story that led to its catching fire in the press and on social media.
By the time the Pothoven story hit the English-language press, American readers in particular were primed to believe that liberal Europe had become callous in its decadence. Just last month, French physicians prompted a papal outcry as they sought to withdraw life support from Vincent Lambert, who has been in a vegetative state since 2008. In 2017 and 2018, the stories of two terminally ill British babies, Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans, outraged Christians worldwide. Medical teams caring for Gard and Evans determined that neither would ever recover from his vegetative state. But in both cases, the parents resisted; with the support of Pope Francis, Christians in the U.K. mounted protests. The Gard case even captured the fickle attention of Donald Trump.
As the Guardian reported at the time, Trump wasn’t the only American conservative to adopt the cause of Charlie Gard. Senator Ted Cruz, ever pious, said “our hearts weep” for Gard and his family; a year later, he used the story of Alfie Evans to attack “socialized medicine” and defend the right to life. None of it did any good. Gard’s parents changed their minds, convinced that the treatment they’d longed to try would fail. Evans’s parents remained steadfast but were overruled by British courts and the European Court of Human Rights.
To the Christian right, especially in the U.S., the circumstances of the infants’ deaths added value to their stories. When Trump and Cruz weighed in on the Gard story, they did so in a familiar fighting stance. Rhetorically, at least, their statements evoke an infamous episode from the early-aughts culture wars. Terri Schiavo had been in a persistent vegetative state for years by the time her husband, Michael, filed to remove her feeding tube. Her parents objected and instigated a legal battle. They found powerful allies: then-governor Jeb Bush, with an assist from brother George, tried to force Schiavo’s husband and her medical team to keep her on nutrition in a Florida facility. Her husband insisted that Schiavo never wanted to be kept alive by artificial means. Doctors believed that she would never recover and was not aware of her surroundings. Those facts didn’t matter to the Bushes, or to the Christian right, to whom Schiavo’s name became a rallying cry; her death, to them, was not a private tragedy but a collective sin, tantamount to murder. Trump and Bush and their ilk all tap into the same fears and the same strain of outrage that helped spread the tale of Pothoven’s supposed euthanasia so far beyond the Netherlands. Give the left power, they imply, and its depravity will turn murderous. Liberals — or socialists, depending on who’s the monster du jour — will kill babies, the elderly, and the critically sick. The withdrawal of life support from patients like Schiavo is somehow a precursor not just to euthanasia but to an overly broad definition of the right to die.
In some cases, conservative outrage helps promote lies, like the Pothoven story, or the false hopes spread by allies of Schiavo’s parents. In other cases, it pretends there is simplicity where there is none. Though there are real ethical problems with the Dutch approach to the right to die, and the notion of psychiatric euthanasia may indeed be immoral, the Pothoven story is not the breach it initially seemed. The Gard scenario is more common and poses moral questions that the Christian right tends to skirt.
Gard’s parents faced tragedy whichever direction they turned. So did the baby’s doctors, who’d cared for him since he first showed signs of the genetic disease that would eventually kill him. But the moral complexities of his case got lost in the outrage over his death. His parents wanted to take him to America, to doctors who could perform an experimental treatment, but the baby’s medical team had concluded it would be unlikely to help. Barring an act of God, Gard would stay asleep, and he would not be at peace. He was already suffering, doctors said. Keeping Gard on life support would preserve the fact of his life but add no quality to it. Was it moral, then, to keep him on life support? And if the answer is yes, is there ever a point where death is preferable to hopeless suffering?
Before she died with dignity in 2014, Brittany Maynard asked similar questions. “My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice?” she wrote, weeks before the end. “That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?” The right’s culture warriors decry a “culture of death,” which they blame for all sorts of depravity and describe in the most lurid terms. Abortion “murders the child in the womb.” Euthanasia transforms the sick into “garbage.” But the right rarely wrestles with the moral dilemma posed by the alternative — that assisted dying isn’t an option at all. The terminally ill, in this scenario, would linger in horizonless suffering, waiting for miracles that never come.