Premature rupture of the fetal membranes is a major cause of preterm birth and its associated infant morbidity and mortality. Recently, it has become clear that rupture of the fetal membranes, term or preterm, is not merely the result of the stretch and shear forces of uterine contractions, but is, in significant part, the consequence of a programmed weakening process. Work in the rat model has demonstrated that collagen remodeling, with activation of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), and apoptosis increase markedly in the amnion at end-gestation, suggesting that these processes are involved in fetal membrane weakening. We have developed fetal membrane strength testing equipment and a systematic tissue sampling methodology that has allowed us to demonstrate that term, non-labored, fetal membranes have a zone of weakness overlying the cervix, which contains biochemical markers of both collagen remodeling and apoptosis. These findings provide strong support for the concept of programmed fetal membrane weakening prior to labor. Our model has also been used to establish the physical properties of individual fetal membrane components (amnion, chorion), determine the sequence of events during the fetal membrane rupture process, and demonstrate that treatment of fetal membranes with TNF or IL-1beta, in vitro, induces weakness and the identical biochemical markers of collagen remodeling and apoptosis seen in the physiological weak zone. The ability to simultaneously correlate macroscopic physical properties with histological and biochemical fetal membrane characteristics, presents a unique perspective on the physiology of fetal membrane rupture.