Estradiol (E2) is an important modifier of the activity of the fetal hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. We have reported that estradiol-3-sulfate (E2SO4) circulates in fetal blood in far higher concentrations than E2 and that the fetal brain expresses steroid sulfatase, required for local deconjugation of E2SO4. We performed the present study to test the hypothesis that chronic infusion of E2SO4 chronically increases ACTH and cortisol secretion and that it shortens gestation. Chronically catheterized fetal sheep were treated with E2SO4 intracerebroventricular (n = 5), E2SO4 iv (n = 4), or no steroid infusion (control group, n = 5). Fetuses were subjected to arterial blood sampling every other day until spontaneous birth for plasma hormone analysis. Treatment with E2SO4 attenuated preparturient increases in ACTH secretion near term without affecting the ontogenetic rise in plasma cortisol. Infusion of E2SO4 intracerebroventricularly significantly increased plasma E2, plasma E2SO4, and plasma progesterone and shortened gestation compared with all other groups. These results are consistent with the conclusion that E2SO4: 1) interacts with the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis primarily by stimulating cortisol secretion and inhibiting ACTH and pro-ACTH secretion by negative feedback; and 2) stimulates the secretion of E2 and E2SO4. We conclude that the endocrine response to E2SO4 in the fetus is not identical with the response to E2.