An increased spontaneous abortion rate has been observed in pregnancies preceding that of fetuses or newborn infants with neural tube defects (NTDs). There are 2 suggested explanations for this observation. One is that a trophoblastic cell rest, remaining from a previous aborted pregnancy, interferes with normal embryogenesis. The second is that the previous lost fetus was affected with NTD. We studied the obstetric history of mothers of newborn infants with NTDs compared to those with other birth defects, in low and high risk groups for NTD (Jew and Bedouins). A significantly higher spontaneous abortion rate (48%) in the preceding pregnancy was found in the NTD group compared to the group with other birth defects (20%). This was especially remarkable for spina bifida cases in the Jewish study population. A significantly higher rate of preceding spontaneous abortion was also found in congenital heart defects (CHD) when compared to other congenital malformations. A hypothesis based on the multifactorial threshold model is put forward to explain these findings. Based on the realization that spontaneous abortion constitutes a high risk factor for NTD and possibly also CHD, we recommend a delay of subsequent pregnancy and periconceptional treatment with folic acid following spontaneous abortion. © 1994 Wiley-Liss, Inc.