Background Preeclampsia and intra-uterine growth restriction (IUGR) are major health problems during pregnancy affecting both mother and child. Defective placental development and failure of trophoblast differentiation during pregnancy are important aspects in the pathogenesis of both syndromes. Recent studies have shown that autophagy is involved in the trophoblast survival capacity. As vitamin D has a central role in many cellular processes, we studied the relation of vitamin D and autophagy in those processes of preeclampsia and IUGR. Methods Serum and placental samples from four groups of cases; normal term, IUGR, early-onset and late-onset preeclampsia, were analyzed for 25(OH)D vitamin D, sFLT1, PGF, LGALS13 in serum and vitamin D receptor (VDR), MAP1LC3B and BECN1 in placental tissues. Results There was a significant difference in the sFLT1/PGF ratio in preeclamptic cases compared to controls and IUGR. There was a significant difference between these groups in the MAP1LC3B/BECN1 ratio as marker of the trophoblast survival capacity with a significantly reduced ratio in villous trophoblast of early-onset preeclampsia. Maternal vitamin D deficiency was found in all pathological pregnancies combined with significantly reduced staining levels of placental VDR in IUGR. Finally, there was a strong and significant negative correlation between the survival capacity (MAP1LC3B/BECN1) and both maternal vitamin D and placental VDR in the preeclampsia groups. Conclusion Vitamin D and intracellular VDR are strongly related to the trophoblast survival capacity in preeclampsia.