Does It Matter That Terri Can't Swallow? No.
The Absent Reflex
Much has been made over the issue of Terri Schiavo’s swallowing. It is because Schiavo cannot swallow that a feeding tube was inserted directly into her stomach.. It is this feeding tube that has been the object of gargantuan legal, moral and ethical struggles.
But what is swallowing and why should it carry such import?
There are three stages of swallowing: the oral, chewing phase; the pharyngeal reflex phase wherein the food is propelled over the vocal cords and into the esophagus; and, the esophageal stage, during which food travels to the stomach.
The fight over Terri Schiavo involves only one of these three stages and that is the pharyngeal stage.
During the pharyngeal stage of swallowing, the body senses there is food in the back of the throat. This “sensation,” initiates a reflex: an involuntary muscle contraction akin to a knee jerk.
In one rapid sequence the body shutters the nearby opening to the lungs (the trachea) and shunts the food to the esophagus. The reflex is over and the food travels down the esophagus to the stomach.
Swallowing, Breathing, Beating – Not The Same Family
In this way swallowing is entirely different from breathing and heart beating. Breathing and heart beating go on constantly, without stop. Although they too have reflex properties associated with certain of their functions, the motors for breathing and heart beating are in an ever-on position, the alteration of which would mean rapid demise of the organism.
This is not the case with swallowing which, being a reflex, is only used sporadically, during feeding. This is the crux of the case that has been ignored – no abused – by the ethicists and lawyers involved with the Terri Schiavo case.
Most reflex circuits are local, and wired differently from other motor functions. When there is pizza in the back of the mouth the body cannot wait for the cerebral cortex to give permission to swallow. Instead, the rapid swallowing reflex obeys a different, shorter circuit, (much the same as the knee jerk) involving a brief pathway to the nearby brainstem. Studies show that the cerebral cortex is important only in the voluntary initiation of swallowing.
So Why Are We So Focused on Terri’s Cerebral Cortex?
Neurologists, ethicists and hospice specialists are parading across the news each day affirming that Terri Schiavo has so little cerebral cortex that she cannot possibly think, feel or act volitionally. Yet the debate over ending her life is centered NOT on any essentially cortical activity – the debate is over a reflex that occurs on a different neurological level.
What the courts have decided is that because Terri Schiavo has lost the ability to initiate and reproduce this local, noncortical neurological reflex, her fate rests in the hands of Michael Schiavo.
The obtrusive error that has been made here, by the ethicists and the courts, is in centering this case on that reflex.
There can be no doubt that if Terri Schiavo maintained the brainstem swallowing reflex -- everything else being equal -- there would be no court case, and no national hand-wringing. Ms. Schiavo would be left alone to live out her life under the care of her parents.
But we should no more be basing the life and death of Terri Schiavo on this reflex than we should on a knee jerk.
Can’t Pee? Stay Away From Florida’s Courts
What the courts have done is to pick one reflexive neural pathway and decide that this is the critical and key determinant of life and death.
The mistake that has been made – the knot that is being undone – is in centering this legal and ethical decision around the swallowing reflex. Because, the case can now be made that other similar reflexes may similarly be exploited.
Namely, I am thinking of micturation. Urination. Peeing.
Urinating is more akin to swallowing than swallowing is to breathing or heart beating. The urinary bladder fills with liquid and thus stimulates neuroreceptors in the bladder wall that in turn leads to the urination reflex.
Another Tube, Another Problem?
More frequently than swallowing, urinating is a reflexive process that is frequently dysfunctional. For many reasons there are people who cannot adequately perform this reflex and who therefore need the assistance of a tube. In this case it is not a feeding tube allowing ingress to the body; rather, it is a urinary catheter which allows egress.
Tens of thousands of Americans live today with catheters in their urinary bladders. These catheters may be transurethral (through the penis or female urethra) or percutaneous (stuck through the body wall directly into the bladder).
What would happen if one were to remove the urinary catheter from those who have them? They would die. Slowly, urine would accumulate, the kidneys would become engorged via backflow, and nitrogenous wastes would build up in the bloodstream leading to coma and death.
In this sense, there is no difference between a feeding tube and a urinary catheter. So why are we not talking about removing Terri Schiavo’s urinary catheter? Why are we focused on the feeding tube?
That the courts should decide that the primitive local reflexive action of swallowing is the deciding physiological factor between life and death makes no sense physiologically, teleologically or morally.
There is nothing inherently nutritive about swallowing. Neither does the absence of this reflex necessitate death, as would one see were respiration or circulation suddenly be cut off.
The Living Will of the Future?
The bogus argument over Terri Schiavo’s “living will” or desire “not to live like this” has devolved into the presence or absence of this swallowing reflex. Therefore, all living wills in the future will, by necessity, need to be broken down into checklists of neurological items constituting an inventory of both voluntary and reflexive neurological activities that we are either willing, or not willing, to live with.
Would you live without a knee-jerk reflex? Without a sneeze? Without the exhaustive reflexes of micturation and defecation? Which will you choose?