"BABYLAND," REPORTED BY ELIZABETH VARGAS, ON "20/20," FRIDAY, AUGUST 22
There are places in America where the unthinkable is happening -- too many babies are dying. In most cities, black babies are dying at three times the rate of white babies. That's what's happening in Memphis, Tennessee, the city with the nation's highest rate of infant mortality. A baby dies there on average every 43 hours. But many people are working to change that startling statistic. "Babyland," a one-hour report anchored by Elizabeth Vargas, airs on "20/20," FRIDAY, AUGUST 22 (10:00-11:00 pm, ET) on the ABC Television Network.
Vargas travels to Memphis to report on what's being done there, and to see what the rest of the country can learn. She introduces us to young mothers and mothers-to-be who live in what can often seem a foreign country right here at home. Vargas takes us to the potter's field cemetery, run by the county and nicknamed "Babyland," where babies who don't survive are laid to rest. In Memphis, Vargas asks, "What does it mean that we're losing so many black babies before their first birthday?"
The broadcast follows a black teenage mother-to-be who is mentored by a volunteer from a white suburban church in order to ensure that both mother and baby stay healthy. The surprising relationship between these two women, the poor black mother and the white mentor of comfortable means, becomes the emotional center of the documentary. Their journey through pregnancy and birth and the twists and turns afterwards tell an intense story that cuts across issues of race and class. The mentor reveals her own education through the process: "[The young woman] has seen so much pain in her short life, it makes me appreciate the things I've always taken for granted."
Vargas reports the medical story of infant mortality -- being born prematurely is the primary reason for infant deaths. But this is not a problem that can be solved by medical care alone. "When you go after infant mortality, you're not going after polio, like the March of Dimes did. You're going after life," says the founder of the pioneering neonatal intensive care unit in Memphis, Dr. Sheldon Korones. According to Dr. Korones and others appearing in the program, the dying babies can be viewed as a warning of a dangerous attitude toward the underclass: "Infant mortality is a manifestation of the accumulated social inadequacies that we have tolerated historically."
Vargas finds dedicated people in Memphis begging for attention to be paid to infant mortality. One of them, Erma Simpson, a long-time counselor of pregnant teens, describes the difficulties of raising money to help poor mothers. "I have trouble even getting donations of maternity clothes," she says. Vargas wonders if the lack of support is related to the fact that the women needing help are almost all black. "Is it because these babies are black that somehow people care less?," she asks. The black social worker replies, "Yes, period." Dr. Kenneth Robinson, a former Tennessee health commissioner who is pastor of a Memphis congregation, tells Vargas: "Infant deaths in this nation account for more deaths than all of the other causes of death combined for children up to the age of 18. We should be marching. We should be absolutely indignant about those numbers."
"Babyland" is anchored by Elizabeth Vargas. Tom Yellin is executive producer. Craig Leake is the producer and editor with co-producer David Appleby.