A bill that would give Marylanders the right to refuse life-sustaining medical care if they become terminally ill passed the House of Delegates Saturday, marking the first time the legislation got House approval in seven years.

After the bill passed, members of the House cheered Del. Sheila Hixson (D-Montgomery), the bill's sponsor.

"I'm thrilled," said Hixson after the vote. "Of all the bills I've sponsored, this is the one that would help the most people."

The bill would allow Marylanders to write a legally binding will that specifies that life-sustaining equipment should not be used if they become terminally ill but are comatose or unable to make the decision themselves.

Last year, the bill failed to get the needed majority for passage in the House by 12 votes. Hixson attributed the bill's success this year to the support from the Maryland Catholic Conference, which had opposed the bill in previous years, and the American Association of Retired Persons.

The Catholic conference, which represents bishops in Baltimore, Washington and Wilmington, Del., dropped its opposition after helping draft a preamble that states that the bill does not condone mercy killing but only seeks to allow the person to choose the natural process of dying, Hixson said.