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.

Elizabeth Vargas travels to Memphis to report on what is 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 to be a foreign country right here at home. Vargas takes us to the potter’s field cemetery run by the county, nicknamed “Babyland,” where babies are laid to rest. In Memphis, Vargas asks, “What does it mean that we are losing so many black babies before their first birthday?”

The broadcast follows an unusual relationship between a black teenage mother-to-be and a white volunteer from a suburban church, whose goal is to ensure that the baby is born healthy. The surprising bond between the inner city mother and her suburban mentor becomes the emotional center of the documentary. Their journey together through pregnancy and birth and the twists and turns that follow is an intense story that cuts through issues of race and class. The women learn about each other – and themselves.

Babyland was first broadcast August 22, 2008 on ABC.


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 are a warning of the danger that comes from ignoring the underclass: “Infant mortality is a manifestation of the accumulated social inadequacies that we have tolerated historically.”

Vargas finds dedicated people in Memphis virtually begging that attention 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. “Is it because these babies are black that somehow people care less?” Vargas asks. The black social worker replies, “Yes, period.”

Dr. Kenneth Robinson, a former Tennessee health commissioner who is pastor of a Memphis congregation points out that infant deaths in the US 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,” he says. “We should be absolutely indignant about those numbers.”


“[Babyland] alludes to a bigger picture — of poverty, of race-based government indifference — that makes these personal crusades feel like lost causes. But the mere fact that someone is making them is wonderful to see.”

The New York Times – Neil Genzlinger

“The word “crisis” may arguably be overused in America these days. It’s hard to look at the footage of Babyland and say it doesn’t apply here.”

The New York Daily News

“Watching city workers lower miniature coffins into the parched earth of Babyland, it’s hard to argue with reporter Elizabeth Vargas’ terse verdict: “Too many babies are dying.”

Miami Herald

“Along with creating greater awareness of a social problem, [executive producer Tom Yellin] said he hopes the program will show viewers they don’t need to travel overseas to find opportunities to change lives.”

Memphis Commercial Appeal



Produced and Directed by, Craig Leake and David Appleby

Written by, Craig Leake, Elizabeth Vargas, David Appleby, and Tom Yellin

Director of Photography and Editor, Craig Leake

Additional Photography, Richard Copley and David Appleby

Assistant Producers, Jane Folk, Linda Leake, and Genene Walker

Location Sound, Nathan Black, Andy Black, Nick Simpson, Carl Jones

Sound Mix, Kevin Houston

Production Assistants, Marcus Wilton, Brooks Boutwell, Marshell Beckton

Music, Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors

Graphic Designer, Victoria Nece

Supervising Producer, Christina Lowery

Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings

Executive Producer, Tom Yellin