The Government says it will allow Labour Peers to vote in favour of weakening the law on assisted suicide if they wish.
The pledge came on Monday night as the Coroners and Justice Bill – which includes a review of the current law – was debated at Second Reading in the House of Lords.
The Minister introducing the Bill, Lord Bach, said the Government’s intention was to “simplify and update the law in this area and not to change its scope”.
However, it is thought an amendment to allow assisted suicide could be tabled while the Bill is in the House of Lords.
During the Bill’s passage through the House of Commons an attempt by Patricia Hewitt MP to weaken the law failed when debating time ran out.
Opening this week’s debate Lord Bach advised Peers that “the issue of doctor-assisted dying is too important and too profound for it to be slipped into a passing government Bill”.
Several Peers referred to the recent controversy surrounding the Dignitas suicide facility in Switzerland, where more than 100 Britons have committed suicide.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has so far decided not to prosecute anyone for helping one of these people travel to Switzerland for this purpose, and some Peers said the law should now be changed to reflect this.
Lord Neill of Bladen said legalising a suicide trip to Switzerland would be “diametrically opposed” to the other clauses in the Bill which maintain the ban on assisted suicide in the UK.
Lord Hylton referred to serial killer Harold Shipman, who is thought to have murdered around 250 people while he worked as a doctor.
“In addressing end-of-life issues, this question of public protection must surely be our paramount concern.
“It is why the Government have rightly resisted any attempts to use the Bill to make assistance with suicide or the killing of patients legal.”
He told the House: “I argue that many people, especially the feeble-minded, the frail, the elderly, the confused or the chronically ill, are particularly vulnerable. They deserve our protection against coercion or persuasion to take their own lives.
“Exceptions to the offence of encouraging or assisting suicide will place temptations in front of would-be exploiters who would benefit from someone else’s death.”
Lord Bach said: “We heard many passionate speeches on assisted suicide, either for a change in the law or for maintaining the law as it is.
“I was asked whether there would be a free vote on the Government’s side. The answer is yes.”
He added: “However, I must repeat the observation that I made many hours ago in my opening speech; namely, that we do not think this Bill is the appropriate vehicle in which to pursue a change in the law on this sensitive issue.”