The government said on Friday it would allow MPs a free vote on proposals to change the law on assisted suicide to allow people to take terminally ill patients abroad to die for without fear of prosecution.
Former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has tabled an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill which she said would bring the law into line with the current practice of prosecutors not to take any action.
Allowing a free vote improves the amendment's chances but political sources doubted it will ultimately succeed.
The law says assisting suicide is a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.
However, since 1992, almost 100 British citizens have ended their lives at the Dignitas facility in Switzerland -- where assisted suicide is legal -- without their relatives being prosecuted.
Last month Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, lost a legal bid to force the government to clarify the law on assisted suicide to protect her husband from any future action.
She wanted assurances from the Director of Public Prosecutions that her husband would not be prosecuted if he helped her to go to a euthanasia facility abroad.
"In the long term we need a bill to change the law to allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults suffering at the end of their lives the choice of an assisted death, within safeguards, in this country," Hewitt said.
"In the meantime, I hope that the amendment I have tabled will prompt the long overdue parliamentary debate necessary to bring the law on assisted suicide in line with the practice of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the courts."
Hewitt's proposal already has the backing of more than 100 MPs from different parties and in an unusual move, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who opposes changing the law, said he would allow Labour MPs a free vote on the issue.
Under normal circumstances, the government would expect MPs to back its stance on an amendment to one of its bills.
"We believe that any change in the law in this area is a matter for individual MPs and for parliament to decide rather than for government policy," Brown's spokesman said.
"The view of the prime minister is that decisions on prosecutions should rest with the Director of Public Prosecutions, as set out under the current law."
Opponents of assisted suicide said Hewitt's proposal was "farcical and tragic," as the government is actively trying to tighten the law to outlaw Internet sites that encourage suicide.
"The law has an important deterrent effect and that means the cases we see are those involving resolute and self-confident people who haven't been coerced," said Peter Saunders, Director of Care Not Killing.
"But take away that deterrent and we would soon start to see cases of abuse and an opening of the floodgates. Make no mistake: this amendment is just a precursor to a more general euthanasia law."
Dignity in Dying, which backs Hewitt, said the current law fails to distinguish between those who are compassionately assisting an adult who wants to die and those abusing vulnerable people by encouraging suicide.
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