Reactive oxygen species (ROS) pose a serious threat to maternal and fetal health during pregnancy. However, there is little information on the oxidative damage caused by ROS and its protection during prenatal life. The present study highlights the status of various antioxidants in human placental and fetal tissues at different phases of gestation. The activity profile of scavenging enzymes, superoxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase as well as the concentrations of non-enzymatic antioxidants, ascorbic acid, α-tocopherol, bilirubin and glutathione have been determined in human placental whole homogenate, placental brush border membrane and fetal liver over gestational periods ranging from 6 weeks of pregnancy till birth. The ontogenic profile of lipid peroxidation, a marker of oxidative damage has also been investigated in the feto-placental system. Catalase, superoxide dismutase and glutathione reductase activities increased significantly, but glutathione peroxidase activity remained almost the same throughout development. Except α-tocopherol and bilirubin, the concentrations of other non-enzymic scavengers followed a significant increasing trend with advancement of pregnancy. Results indicate that there is gradual suppression of lipoperoxide formation with the progress of gestation to protect the fetus against oxygen toxicity. © 2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers.