We test the null hypothesis that the morphometric diffusive conductance of the placental villous membrane does not alter in pregnancies complicated by intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) or pre-eclampsia (PE). Placentas were collected from cases of normotensive IUGR, pure PE, PE+IUGR and from control pregnancies. Microscopical fields on formalin-fixed, trichrome-stained histological sections were randomly sampled for location and orientation. Using stereological methods, the exchange surface areas of peripheral (terminal and intermediate) villi and their fetal capillaries and the arithmetic and harmonic mean thicknesses of the villous membrane (maternal aspect of trophoblast to luminal aspect of vascular endothelium) were estimated. An index of the variability in thickness of this membrane, and an estimate of its oxygen diffusive conductance, was derived secondarily. Group comparisons were drawn using two-way analysis of variance to identify main effects (of PE or IUGR) and interaction effects (between PE and IUGR). PE did not have significant effects on placental morphology and there were no significant effects of PE or IUGR on membrane thickness or its variability. In contrast, IUGR (with or without PE) was associated with reduced surface areas and this was the principal factor leading to a smaller membrane diffusive conductance in these placentas. When account was taken of fetal mass, specific conductance showed no effects of PE or IUGR despite the mass-specific conductance in pure IUGR placentas appearing to be smaller than that in controls. The decline in total conductances is indicative of perturbations operating at the levels of villous trophoblast and fetal vasculature and these may contribute to fetal hypoxic stress.