'Love Child' the Latest Celeb Must-Have

Out-of-wedlock births. Shotgun weddings. Catch phrases for "illegitimate" pregnancies (and the quickie nuptials that may follow) have an almost criminal ring to them.

But Hollywood has set to work changing the stigma of premarital babies. Now, pregnancies among the unwed are joy-filled occasions — not shameful ones — in celebrity gossip circuits. And they're certainly not cause for starlets' unexplained disappearances or catastrophic career endings anymore.

"[Out-of-wedlock] pregnancy used to be hush-hush and under the covers," said pop culture watcher Anderson Jones. "Now it's on the cover of Us Weekly."

Star couples who have a bambino and then tie the knot — maybe — are very hip indeed. Consider the A-list company they keep, with Heath Ledger (search) and Michelle Williams (search) shouting out their daughter's birth from the ("Brokeback") mountain this week and Tom Cruise (search) and Katie Holmes (search) announcing the couch-jumping news of her bun-in-the-oven last month.

They join other mainstreamers who have recently paved the way — Gwyneth Paltrow (search) and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin (search), Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck and Heidi Klum and Seal, among others.

"The new hot accessory is no longer a Chihuahua. It's a baby," Us Weekly editor Katrina Szish said wryly. "It's not about Tinkerbell [Paris Hilton's former dog], it's about Apple."

That said, Hollywood's baby-before-marriage fad — and the fact that nobody makes much of a fuss over it anymore — outrages some average Joes and Janes across the country, as well as sociologists and marriage advocates.

"I think it's a terrible thing," said David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project (search), a nonpartisan marriage-trends research group at Rutgers University. "You would hope that in the best of all worlds, people privileged enough to be in the public eye would be strong enough to set a good example, but that's not the case."

But it's not just stars who are part of the trend. Babies have increasingly been born out of wedlock to regular Americans too.

After years of little or no change in the stats, extramarital births have risen 8 percent since 2003 — 4 percent annually for the past two years — with 1.5 million babies born to unwed parents in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (search).

NCHS demographer Stephanie Ventura said that while the spike may not seem huge, it's actually quite significant, considering the years-long plateau in unwed birth rates and the fact that 35 percent of all children in this country today are born to unmarried mothers.

"There are more unmarried women in the population. Couples have been postponing marriage," explained Ventura. "There's an increase in cohabitation. And birth rates for unmarried teenagers have been going down, but for every other age group have been going up — especially 25 and older."

The anger over glorifying the practice in Hollywood isn't totally lost on the star-watch media. But whether it will one day be reflected in top-of-the-hour teasers and blaring headlines is another story.

"When entertainment shows and glossies gush that 'Katie's "bump" is showing — isn't that cute?' we have to be careful," said Us Weekly's Szish. "Everyone says they're going into [the pregnancies] with the best intentions, but 'no wedding' can be the dangerous part of this trend. Hollywood is very whimsical and impetuous."

The entire phenomenon (in the real world and Hollywood) concerns marriage scholars, who say a volume of studies have shown two worrying findings: Marriages are more likely to crumble when cohabitation or children come before the walk down the aisle. And more troubles — including teen pregnancy, depression, drug use and dropping out of school — befall children who aren't raised by both natural parents, according to the National Marriage Project.

"The breakup rate is higher if you live together first and if you have a child before marriage," Popenoe said. "Kids growing up without both biological parents tend to have more problems of all kinds. There's just abundant research now that indicates the gold standard is married, biological parents."

The exception, he said, seems to be among families with adoptive parents — whose children seem nearly as healthy and well adjusted as the kids in households with both natural parents.

Single parents don't necessarily believe that research, with the founder of one online support group saying it depends more on factors like how the parent handles the situation and what his or her socioeconomic status is.

"I don't think having a single parent is a detriment," said Spencer Betz, the mother who runs Moms On a Mission, Single (MOMS) (search). "I think it's acceptable if they have the ways and means — as long as they're able to provide for their children financially, emotionally and physically."

If anything, Betz said, her 12-year-old daughter gets more, not less, attention from her because she is raising her alone.

"My daughter has more one-on-one time with me because I've tried to compensate" for the lack of two parents at home, she said.

Families like Betz's and the new NCHS stats beg the question: Is Hollywood a trendsetter or a trend-follower here? Jones, the pop culture writer, thinks it's the latter.

Celebrities are "making it more acceptable, but in this case, society moved ahead of Hollywood," said Jones, who has interviewed most of the out-of-wedlock stars in question — including Cruise, Holmes, Paltrow, Garner, Affleck, Ledger, Williams and Seal.

"The rules for dating and marriage have completely changed over the past 20 years, in Hollywood and elsewhere. Shotgun weddings are a relic."

And the fact that famous women aren't taking as much heat anymore for having children out of wedlock or raising kids on their own delights some people who say there's a double standard for women compared to men who father out-of-marriage babies.

In Tom and Katie's case, there were a couple of people who reportedly had a vociferous negative reaction when the news first broke: Holmes' parents. But since then, they haven't said much more.

Perhaps part of the leniency now granted famous couples who become Parents Without Wedding Rings stems from the fact that many of them do soon take the plunge — as did Paltrow and Martin, Bennifer 2 and Klum and Seal. TomKat, as well as Williams and Ledger, are engaged.

In fact, the last time in recent memory a star didn't get away scot-free with an out-of-wedlock birth was when Madonna (search) had personal trainer Carlos Leon's baby girl, Lourdes, in 1996 and unabashedly announced that she didn't intend to marry the father.

But even then, people quickly waved it off as a typically calculated Material Girl shocker (she and now-husband Guy Ritchie (search) also had their son, Rocco, about four months before they got married in 2000, but there wasn't much of a reaction to that).

Some people, even in Hollywood, still do feel ashamed when they get pregnant outside of marriage — like Beyonce's kid sister Solange Knowles (search) (who had a shotgun wedding) and R&B star Brandy (search), whose "ex-husband" and father of her child said they went so far as to make up a story of a fake wedding to preserve her wholesome image when she got pregnant. (Brandy has accused her ex of trying to destroy her reputation, but never denied that the marriage was a sham.)

Nonetheless, stars usually seem all smiles at such news, and the press and fans just grin along with them.

What's particularly surprising is not that celebrities are doing it and getting away with it unscathed — it is Hollywood, land of the lawless, after all — but that lately it's happening more to the apple-pie set than the leather-and-lace crowd.

"Now it's these wholesome girls, these golden girls in Hollywood like Gwyneth and Katie who are striking out and having babies out of wedlock," Szish said. "These aren't the typical bad girls."

So what exactly are the vixens doing while their Little Miss Perfect peers are getting all unconventional on us?

"Those you'd think most likely to have babies out of wedlock — Britney and even Christina Aguilera — are doing things the old-fashioned way: getting married and then having babies," said Szish. "It's an ironic twist on the whole thing."